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30 Years after Les Immatériaux
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30 Years after
Les Immatériaux:
Art, Science,
and Theory
edited by
Yuk Hui and Andreas Broeckmann

Yuk Hui and Andreas Broeckmann: Introduction 9


Jean-François Lyotard: After Six Months of Work… (1984) 29

P A R T I I : A R T

Antony Hudek: From Over- to Sub-Exposure: The Anamnesis of

Les Immatériaux 71

Jean-Louis Boissier in conversation with Andreas Broeckmann:

The Production of Les Immatériaux 93

Jean-Louis Boissier: The Bus of Les Immatériaux 109

Francesca Gallo: Contemporary Art as “Immatériaux”:

Yesterday and Today 119

Thierry Dufrêne: Les Immatériaux: An “Immodern” Project 137


Bernard Stiegler: The Shadow of the Sublime: On

Les Immatériaux 147

Anne Elisabeth Sejten: Exhibiting and Thinking: An Anamnesis

of the Postmodern 159

Yuk Hui: Anamnesis and Re-Orientation: A Discourse on

Matter and Time 179
Charlie Gere: The Silence of God 203

Robin Mackay: Immaterials, Exhibition, Acceleration 215

Daniel Birnbaum and Sven-Olov Wallenstein: From Immaterials

to Resistance: The Other Side of Les Immatériaux 245

Bibliograhpy 269
Image Credits 271
Authors 273

Yuk Hui and Andreas Broeckmann

The Postmodern in Les Immatériaux

In 1985, the French philosopher Jean-François Lyotard, together with the
design theorist Thierry Chaput, curated the exhibition Les Immatériaux at
the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris. He had accepted an invitation by the
Minister for Culture and the Center for Industrial Creation (CCI). Six years after
Lyotard’s report on The Postmodern Condition (1979),1 the exhibition dem-
onstrated the hypothesis which he had described in the report. The objects
and artworks shown expressed his observations of what was happening in
domains such as art, science and philosophy, under the new condition of com-
munication technologies. Lyotard’s report is considered to be a response to
another report by Simon Nora and Alain Minc, in the 1970s, which proposed
the “computerisation of society” 2. Nora and Minc’s project lead to the devel-
opment of the French Minitel system. According to Lyotard, the new “post-
modern” condition demanded a new sensibility, as he stated in the principle
proposition for the exhibition: “The insecurity, the loss of identity, the crisis
is not expressed only in economy and the social, but also in the domains of
the sensibility, of the knowledge and the power of man (futility, life, death),
the modes of life (in relation to work, to habits, to food, … etc.).” 3 A constant
return to the postmodern condition became a general method of Lyotard’s
philosophical thinking to go beyond the modern imagination, and guided the
construction of the exhibition which was, in his own words, a “manifestation”,
a “non-exhibition”.

1 Jean-François Lyotard, La Condition postmoderne (Paris: Éditions de Minuit, 1979).

2 Charlie Gere, Art, Time and Technology (Oxford: Berg, 2006), p. 139.
3 Les Immatériaux catalogue, Album (Paris: Centre Pompidou, 1985), p. 26.
10 30 Years after Les Immatériaux

The title of the exhibition Les Immatériaux demonstrates a form of resistance

against the modern conception of materiality. The original title for the project
that the CCI had initiated already in 1981, before Lyotard got involved in 1983,
was Création et matériaux nouveaux. This title was changed several times:
Matériau et création, Matériaux nouveaux et création, La Matière dans tous ses
états, before it was finally announced to the public as Les Immatériaux.4 The
etymological root mât refers to making by hand, to measure, to construct.
The moderns since Descartes conceive a dualism and hence an opposition
between the res cogitans and the res extensa; the thinking mind becomes the
foundation of knowledge and also the judge of what is real. As Lyotard wrote:
“In the tradition of modernity, the relation of the human with materials is fixed
by the Cartesian programme: to become master and possessor of nature. A
free will imposes its ends to the given sense data to divert them away from
their natural sense. It will determine their end with the help of language which
allows it to articulate what is possible (a project) and to impose it upon what is
real (matter).” 5

Hence Lyotard considered that a title such as matériaux nouveaux would

only perpetuate the modern conception, while using the prefix im- could
introduce a moment of self-reflection: “The exhibition [manifestation] entitled
Les Immatériaux has the purpose of presenting [ faire sentir] how much this
relation is altered by the fact of new materials. In this extended sense, the new
materials are not only new materials, they interrogate an idea of the human
who works, who projects, who remembers: of an author.”6 The immaterial is
fundamentally material. The point was not to appreciate the new materiality
brought by the telecommunication technologies, but rather to question the
relation between man and his desire to become the master of matter. The
aim of calling it “immaterial”, like the designation of the “postmodern”, was
to liberate man from the modern paradigm, and to release material from the
prison of the industrial revolution.

At the time, Lyotard had just finished writing Le Differénd, a book dedicated
to the philosophy of Kant and Wittgenstein, in which Lyotard wanted to
re-read the history of philosophy according to what was called the linguistic
turn.7 The differend refers to an unresolved conflict due to the lack of rules or
metanarratives which are common to two different systems of discourse. We
should also recognise that language was always at the centre of his thoughts,
as was already evident since his PhD thesis, which was later published as

4 Antony Hudek, “From Over- to Sub-Exposure: The Anamnesis of Les Immatériaux”, in this
volume, p. 72.
5 Les Immatériaux catalogue, Album (Paris: Centre Pompidou, 1985), p. 16.
6 Ibid.
7 Jean-François Lyotard, Le Différend (Paris: Minuit, 1983).
Introduction 11



destinateur destinataire
[sender] [receiver] message
maternité matériel
[maternity] [message] [hardware]



[Figure 1] Communication diagram (Source: Petit Journal, 28 March–15 July 1985, Paris, p. 2.
Centre Pompidou, MNAM, Bibliothèque Kandinsky).

Discours, Figure (1971). 8 The question of language was hence fundamental

to Lyotard’s conceptualisation of this exhibition, especially since telecom-
munication technology had created a new materiality of language between
senders and receivers; or more fundamentally, it served as the basis of the
postmodern turn. The conception of language as a tool also characterises
modernity, because “modernity presupposes that everything speaks, this
means that so long as we can connect to it, capture it, translate it and inter-
pret it, there is no fundamental difference between data and a phrase; there
is no fundamental difference between a phenomenon of displacement in an
electromagnetic spectrum and a logical proposition”.9 But it is also such an
equivalence that allows Lyotard to develop an ontology of the material or
immaterial according to a model of telecommunication: matériau/medium,
matériel/receiver (destinataire), maternité/emitter (destinateur), matière/
referent, and matrice/code [Figure 1]. The new materiality was mapped onto
the model of telecommunication. The objects and artworks in the exhibition,
as well as the 60 sites at which they were presented, were also classified and
ordered according to these five categories.

Art and Science in Question

Lyotard compared the displacement of the electromagnetic spectrum and log-
ical propositions, and continued: “given this fact, in this face-to-face relation
to a universe that is his to dominate – a heroic relation, I would say – in order
to make himself the master of it, man must become something else entirely:
the human subject becomes no longer a subject but, I would say, one case
among others, albeit a case which retains this privilege, until proven otherwise

8 Jean-François Lyotard, Discours, Figure (Paris: Klincksieck, 1971), translated into English by
Antony Hudek and Mary Lydon, Minneapolis MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2011).
9 From Lyotard’s report, “Après six mois de travail”; see this volume, p. 33.
12 30 Years after Les Immatériaux

(which is extremely improbable)”.10 It was clear to the curatorial team that

technology was not the cause of a rupture, but rather the sign of the decline
of the figure of the modern, and that at the same time technology made
this modern project reflect upon itself, and destabilise itself.11 In Lyotard’s
words, technology places humanity once again in a condition of childhood,
of immaturity. This reference to immaturity is in direct contrast to what Kant
defined as the project of the Enlightenment, namely to overcome the con-
dition of Unmündigkeit.

Unmündigkeit, however, is not opposed to maturity; rather it is opposed

to authority, or more precisely, to the authority that legislates as the sole
voice. Scientific knowledge has been such an authority, which not only
demythologises the universe, but also has a demoralising impact upon what
Lyotard calls the problem of legitimation.12 The postmodern also questions
a certain hegemony of authority and hence radically opens up the way that
knowledge is acquired and narrated. The arrival of the postmodern demands
a sensitivity to the material conditions, at the same time as it gives us a
new sensibility of living. In the 1980s and ‘90s, we saw the celebration of the
postmodern, as a liberation from the shackles of rules, codes, oppositions,
and especially of the modern; a celebration which was evident in almost
all domains listed in the exhibition: alimentation, perfume, architecture,
urbanism, art, astrophysics and physics, biology and genetics, writing, habitat,
mathematics, money, music, theatre, dance etc. The setting of the exhibition
is probably the best illustration of this. It presents us with a labyrinth in which
every object is at once familiar and strange. Envisaging the construction of
the exhibition space, Lyotard proposed to go back to an idea of Denis Diderot
who, when reviewing the paintings of Claude Joseph Vernet in the 1767 Salon,
presented them not as pictures to be viewed following the traditional logic
of the division of gallery space, but rather described them as real sites, in the
form of disorientations of space.

The exhibition arose from an effort to move the concept of the postmodern
outside of books and to find its support in other objects, such as scientific,
industrial and art objects. This approach reflected a global vision, without
referring specifically to social and economic aspects.13 The exhibited objects
tended to bring in new forms of thinking that would call the modern into ques-

10 Ibid.
11 “Deuxième état des immatériaux”, Archive of Centre Pompidou, March 1984.
12 Jean-François Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, trans. Geoff
Bennington and Brian Massumi (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984), p.
13 According to the testimony of member of the curatorial team Chantel Nöel, from
“La Règle du Jeu: Matérialiser Les Immatériaux – Entretien avec l’équipe du C.C.I”, in
Modernes, et après? "Les Immatériaux", ed. Élie Théofilakis (Paris: Édition Autrement,
1985). This distance from social and economic aspects was however disputed between
the team members in the interview.
Introduction 13

tion. In quantum mechanics, Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle claims that

we cannot know the location and speed of a particle simultaneously. Speed
and location are two important concepts in classical mechanics, since it is the
displacement of location and duration that gives us velocity and acceleration.
The presence of particles can now only be imagined in terms of probabilities.
This involves both a mathematical reduction as well as a dematerialisation
of objects in our universe, including stars, galaxies, bodies and mind. For
example, the first seconds of the birth of the universe are represented by
means of a quantifiable model with which we can explain the genesis of the
cosmos, as if there were human subjects who witnessed the process.

We might say that the cosmic mystery has changed through the discovery of
the “immaterial”. The universe is no longer either a stable mechanical model
or a perfect self-organising organism. We can not only observe the movement
of the stellar bodies, but also witness their birth and death. What does such
a change in scientific discovery mean? In the minutes of a meeting of the
curatorial team from 20th March 1984 dedicated to this topic14 there is a tes-
timony from the astrophysicist Michel Cassé, one of the participants of the
exhibition: “Why is the universe so equivocal? Why is the rate of expansion
as it is? If it was different, we wouldn’t be here interrogating ourselves: a uni-
verse more dense would shut itself down before all appearance of life. The
miraculous coincidences, are they not inevitable in every universe that shelter
a conscious observer?”

The art objects in the exhibition pose similar questions and affirm the
uncertainty brought about by new techniques. These objects remain, in a
certain sense, instrumental in demonstrating Lyotard’s vision of the post-
modern. More than anything, Les Immatériaux performed the disappearance
of the body, both in the presentation of the objects and in the audience’s
experience. The new body and mind materialise in the form of codes. At
the entrance there was an Egyptian bas-relief sculpture, followed by a long
and dark corridor. Visitors had to wear headphones and listen to the sound-
track, playing different programmes of spoken texts in 26 different zones
throughout the exhibition space. After passing through the corridor, one
entered the Théâtre du non-corps dedicated to Samuel Beckett, which showed
five dioramas installed by Beckett’s set designer, Jean-Claude Fall. There was
no actor, or rather there were actors without bodies: the first direct reflection
upon the modern gaze. From here began five different, intersecting paths,
with more than 60 sites. For example, corresponding to the category Matériau,
the site entitled Deuxième peau showed different types of grafts made of pork
skins, cultivated skins, and artificial skins. Another site, entitled L’ange, dis-
played a large photograph of Annegret Soltau’s Schwanger (1978), which shows
the artist’s body in different stages of a pregnancy.

14 Document from the Archive of Centre Pompidou.

14 30 Years after Les Immatériaux

In the category Matrice, the site called Jeu d’échecs showed the heuristics of
a chess game with computers; codes were everywhere, even machines that
calculated the statistics of visitors. Through the lens of technical objects, vis-
itors would confront the limit of their own bodies, and the complexity of the
universe. In the category Materiel, for instance, there was a documentary film
about the birth and death of stars projected on a big screen.

For Lyotard, the most fundamental aspect of the transformations mapped

in Les Immatériaux is language. In a documentary about the exhibition titled
Octave au pays des immatériaux, Lyotard concluded the film by saying that
“language is the most immaterial system that material has succeeded in
forming” [le langage est le système le plus immatériel que la matière ait réussi
à former]. In fact, we can probably understand that the coding of materials
brings them closer and closer to the form of messages. Hence after passing
along the five categories of objects and artworks, the exhibition displays
another set of works in a space entitled Labyrinthe du language, dedicated to
Jorge Luis Borges. Not only the materiality of writing has changed, but also its
form of presentation, the way it is written.

The art historian Charlie Gere has observed that the artistic programme of the
exhibition “was not just a reflection of Lyotard’s own taste, but an expression
of his strongly held belief that only such work could properly express or invoke
the sublime.”15 What would be the sublime that this exhibition sought after?
On this point, Lyotard returned to the aesthetic judgement of Kant, especially
the feeling of the sublime. Kant defines the sublime as “the mere capacity of
thinking which evidences a faculty of mind transcending every standard of
the senses.”16 Like aesthetic judgement, the sense feeling is not subsumed by
any concept; but unlike aesthetic judgement, it involves the imagination and
reason instead of the understanding and the imagination. We can speculate
that the exhibition put the sublime itself into question, for the sublime is
no longer only a question of aesthetics but also a question of politics, one
that is deeply grounded in culture and history. Clement Greenberg saw
modernism as a response to what he called “the romantic crisis“ around the
mid-19th century.17 Since then modernism has not ceased to be self-critical.
In contrast, the postmodern – especially Lyotard’s reading of Kant’s reflective
judgement – resonates with the work of the early Romantics such as Friedrich
Wilhelm Joseph Schelling. We may say that, for Lyotard, what the postmodern
responds to is precisely the belief or the illusion of the stable and self-critical
figure of the human. Lyotard makes a strong distinction between situation

15 Gere, Art, Time and Technology, p. 147.

16 Immanuel Kant, Critique of Judgement, trans. James Creed Meredith and Nicolas Walker
(Oxford University Press, 2007), §25, p. 81.
17 Clement Greenberg, “Modern and Postmodern”, Arts, 54, No.6 (February 1980), www.
Introduction 15

and presentation (Darstellung).18 Art as presentation or as re-presentation is

restricted, for Lyotard, to the understanding of Kant’s first Critique. The sub-
lime must manifest itself as contradiction, or conflict between the imagination
and reason. On one hand, the imagination confronts its limit to represent that
which it cannot present; on the other hand, reason has to violate the interdict
that it itself poses of not going beyond the concepts of sensible intuition.19
The sublime is not about conformity (to concepts), but rather contradiction
arises at the moment of here and now as an event (Ereignis) in the sense of
Heidegger, or more precisely in the question: arrive-t-il? 20 In relation to this
supposition, the following is crucial for our inquiry: Lyotard’s discourse on
the sublime did not concern so much whether technology-based art can give
us the sublime or not. Instead, we should re-situate the whole discourse of
the postmodern and Lyotard’s ambivalent feeling about technology and its
relation to postmodernity. Lyotard posed the question of the relationship
between art and technology at the end of a lecture entitled “Something like:
communication… without communication”:

The question raised by the new technologies in connection to their

relation to art is that of the here-and-now. What does “here” mean on the
phone, on television, at the receiver of an electronic telescope? And the
“now”? Does not the “tele-” element necessarily obscure the presence, the
“here-and-now” of the forms and their “carnal” reception? What is a place,
a moment, not anchored in the immediate “suffering” of what happens
[arrive]. Is a computer in any way here and now? Can anything happen
[arriver] with it? Can anything happen to it? 21

Matter and Sentiment

Here we can see doubts and questions in the face of rapid technological devel-
opment and industrialisation. In the article “Logos and Techne, or Telegraphy”,
published in the collection L’Inhuman (1988), Lyotard wrote: “The question of
a hegemonic teleculture on a world scale is already posed.” 22 This doubt of
Lyotard concerning the relation between the postmodern and technologies
also results in its critique. From the 1990s up to today, we can locate different
efforts that try to situate the postmodern in a large historical perspective in
order to find a way out of the melancholia accompanied by the liberation.

18 Élise Marrou, “De Lyotard à Wittgenstein: un différend? Anthropocentrisme et acos-

misme”, in Lyotard à Nanterre (Klincksieck, 2010).
19 Jean-François Lyotard, Lessons on the Analytic of the Sublime, trans. Elizabeth Rottenberg
(Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1994), p. 55.
20 Jean-François Lyotard, “The Sublime and the Avant-Garde”, in The Inhuman: Reflections on
Time (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1991), p. 93.
21 Jean-François Lyotard, “Something like: communication… without communication”, in
The Inhuman, p. 118 (translation modified).
22 Jean-François Lyotard, “Logos and Techne, or Telegraphy”, in The Inhuman, p. 50.
16 30 Years after Les Immatériaux

According to the analysis of art historian Nicolas Bourriaud, the postmodern is

the epoch of melancholia. Taking up the theory of German philosopher Peter
Sloterdijk, Bourriaud proposed that this melancholia comes from disillusion-
ment with the superabundance of energy and resources and the power of
conquest, especially the energy crisis in 1973 and the end of the 30 glorious
years (1945–75) in France. Bourriaud proposed what he calls “the Altermodern”
as the successor to the Postmodern, an epoch in which everyone is uprooted
from their proper culture and becomes a nomad, a homo viator. 23 It seems
to us that this figure still falls squarely within the discourse of the post-
modern, however. In fact reflection on the melancholia of the postmodern was
addressed by Lyotard during the preparation of this exhibition, in a document
entitled Deuxième état des immatériaux, dated March 1984. According to this
document, the exhibition wanted to reflect in its mise en scène the melancholia
brought by the failure of Europe’s and America’s extension of the Enlight-
enment project. This distance from an enlightened, bright and transparent
society created a sorrow (chagrin) among their people. 24

With the project of the present publication, 30 years after Les Immatériaux and
35 years after the appearance of the La Condition postmoderne, we wanted to
investigate what has been happening in the wake of their epochal hypotheses
and observations; or more precisely, what has been happening to the ques-
tion of the postmodern. No doubt, many things have happened. The social,
economic and political conditions have changed, and so have the technological
conditions. Digital technology perpetuates the modern desire for control and
mastery through networks, databases, algorithms and simulations. Digital
technology, which was once the figure instead of the ground, slowly becomes
the ground of governance, communication, and scientific research methods.
It seems to have not only challenged the epistemes of science and art, but
also their epistemologies. At the time of Les Immatériaux, the World Wide
Web had not yet appeared, Minitels were the main computational devices in
the exhibition, and some projects actually faltered because the curatorial
team had difficulties in finding a sufficiently powerful server. One of the most
significant projects in the Labyrinthe du language was Épreuves d’écriture, a col-
laborative online writing project which resulted in the second catalogue of the
exhibition. It invited 26 writers, including philosophers and social scientists
such as Jacques Derrida, Bruno Latour, François Chatelet, Christine Buci-
Glucksmann, Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe, Isabelle Stengers and Dan Sperber,
to contribute commentaries on 50 keywords [Figure 2]. Over the course of
two months, the participants wrote small entries for each keyword, and at
the same time criticised, or commented upon, the entries and comments
of others. During the exhibition, the visitors could use five Minitel terminals

23 Nicolas Bourriaud, Altermodern (London: Tate Publishing, 2009).

24 “Deuxième état des immatériaux”, p. 4.
Introduction 17

[Figure 2] François Chatelet with the Olivetti computer used for the Épreuves d’écriture writing
experiment (Source: Centre Pompidou, MNAM, Bibliotèque Kandinsky).

connected to a central server to access the entries either by keywords or by

the names of the authors. This was probably one of the earliest collective and
networked writing experiences, presented to the public when the computer
was not yet popular.

In art, we have since witnessed the rise and fall of new media art. On the
one hand we observe more and more intensive interdisciplinary collab-
oration with science and technologies; on the other hand, art, design and
technology are converging under the force of the culture industry. In science,
simulation has overturned the established epistemology, since scientific
experiments – the fundamental research method proposed by Francis Bacon
– now demand collaboration with computer simulations. In 2013 the Nobel
prize for chemistry went to Martin Karplus, Michael Levitt and Arieh War-
shel, who since the 1970s have devoted themselves to the development of
molecular dynamics simulations. In the humanities, we have observed the
rise of a new, heavily funded discipline – digital humanities – coinciding, after
the concept of the inhuman proposed by Lyotard in 1986, with discourses on
the post-human, cyborgs, non-human, object-oriented philosophy, and so on.
In light of the transformation brought by telecommunications technologies,
we want to revisit Lyotard’s hypothesis of the destabilisation of the concept
of the modern. Where is this concept of the human going after the post-, the
beyond? Should we not demand a new way of orientation after mastery and
18 30 Years after Les Immatériaux

disorientation, perhaps an orientation that imposes neither a will to mastery

nor the misery of turbulence?

Reorientation: 30 Years after Les Immatériaux

If we can summarise the Modern as the will to mastery, and the Postmodern
as a celebration of disorientation, we propose that we should proceed to a re-
orientation which avoids both mastery and disorientation. Orientation is nec-
essarily anamnesis – that is to say, a recollection of what is past – in the minds,
in cultural objects, and in a new cartography. The initiative of conducting a
research project 30 years after Les Immatériaux is not only to pay homage to it,
and to understand its significance in historical perspective (in terms of art and
theory), but also to reflect upon the transformation of “postmodern culture”.

Politics. As for “disorientation”, the first sense of the word destroys order,
rules and roots; a second sense concerns the Orient and the Occident, a
geopolitical and cultural development under globalisation, supported by
technologies. Countries outside Europe, such as China, which are believed to
have never experienced modernity, suddenly had to adapt to the postmodern
discourse. How could we reassess this, 30 years later? If we need to rediscover
the sentiment, then the 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001, the wars in Iraq and
Afghanistan since late 2001, the credit crunch in 2008, and the Arab Spring in
2011, have brought melancholia to an end. Instead we can probably identify a
new sentiment in what Franco Berardi has conceptualised as a “state of panic”.
This panic comes not only from social and economic conditions, but also from
the networks of transmission: images and sounds of suicide attacks directly
reach our eyes through fibre cables; the figures of stock exchange rates are
instantly updated on the screens of our smartphones, tablets, and computers;
moreover, we are faced with the national surveillance schemes on telecom-
munication channels, and the proliferation of cyber-attacks. Re-orientation
demands a new vision of the conflicts between values and cultures, as well as
a new geopolitical order, which in turn calls for a new form of legitimacy.

Aesthetics. We observe that social, economic and political conditions have

reversed the promise of the postmodern. Think, for example, of Henry
Lefebvre’s postmodernist critique of Le Corbusier’s functionalism and the
desire to control in architectural and urban forms: “The street contains
functions that were overlooked by Le Corbusier: the informative function,
the symbolic function, the ludic function. The street is a place to play and
learn. The street is disorder.” 25 Today the disorder of the street becomes

25 Henri Lefebvre, The Urban Revolution (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003),
p. 18.
Introduction 19

what Richard Florida pinpoints as the “creative city”. 26 Thus, the postmodern
critique becomes a tool of neoliberal discourse. According to Fredric Jameson,
the postmodern follows the logic of late capitalism, in a continuation of the
culture industry critiqued by Adorno and Horkheimer. 27 The disorientation
once celebrated as liberation can now be conceived as a source of sorrow. The
long-lasting post- comes and must come to its end.

Knowledge: The telecommunications technologies embody a model of com-

munication which is more interactive than ever. Within this new configuration,
the legitimacy of knowledge is firstly challenged by top-down authoritarian
legislation. The development of the digital has pervaded every aspect of our
daily life, yesterday’s Minitels have been replaced by personal computers,
pads and smartphones. Theorisation, as the editor of the Wired Magazine
Chris Anderson provocatively claimed, is coming to an end, since big data
will make it “obsolete”. What is rendered obsolete, however, is not only any
kind of narrative – whether “grand narratives” or “micro-narratives” – but
also any attempt at setting up hypotheses, constructing models and con-
ducting proofs, as they had been practised by science since the time of Francis
Bacon. 28

In recent years we have seen new titles such as Hypermodern, Supermodern

and Altermodern, which try to address the new condition after the post-
modern. In contrast, we believe that, in order to articulate this new phase, a
more historical and geopolitical dimension of the modern must be tackled,
and that a new imagination is required. In autumn 2013 the Centre Pompidou
hosted – on its 5th floor, where Les Immatèriaux had also been held – an
exhibition entitled Plural Modernities 1905–1970. This historical recognition
of Plural Modernities, though it affirmed cultural heterogeneity, seemed
indifferent to the concept of the modern itself, and to what happened after
the post-modern; to the sensibility produced by the material conditions,
which not only affect the way we look at the present, but also the past – i.e.,
world history. The past loses its power when it can no longer contribute to
the here and now; hence we feel the need to carry out an anamnesis of Les

26 Richard Florida, The Rise of the Creative Class: And How It’s Transforming. Work, Leisure,
Community, and Everyday Life (New York: Basic Books, 2002).
27 See Fredric Jameson, Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (London:
Verso, 1991), and Theodor W. Adorno and Max Horkheimer, Dialectics of the Enlightenment
(London: Verso, 1979).
28 Chris Anderson, “The End of Theory: The Data Deluge Makes the Scientific Method
Obsolete”; online:
20 30 Years after Les Immatériaux

Structure of the Book

This book is divided into three parts. The first part, “Document”, offers the
first publication of the transcript of a report which Lyotard addressed –
probably to his colleagues – in the spring of 1984. The text does not have an
original title, which is why it is referred to according to its first words, “After
six months of work” (Après six mois de travail). In this text, Lyotard speaks
about conceptual, theoretical and practical considerations regarding the
preparations for the exhibition. It not only offers interesting insights into the
evolution of the guiding conceptual principles of Les Immatériaux, which were
subsequently translated into curatorial and scenographic decisions, but also
highlights the need to historicise the exhibition and its preparatory phase,
which had already begun in 1981 with extensive research by Chaput and his
team. This preparatory phase included a first conceptual sketch provided by
Lyotard in August 1983, which was then pinpointed by the report first trans-
lated into English here – a report whose opening words already point us to the
transitory, evolutionary work that would eventually lead to the exhibition.

The second part of the book focuses on the artistic programme of Les
Immatériaux and contains texts by art historians and artists who discuss
various aspects of the historical significance of Les Immatériaux. In the 2000s,
three art historians conducted extensive research into the background
and context of the exhibition: Francesca Gallo, Antony Hudek, and Antonia
Wunderlich. We have included a text by Hudek here, which offers a detailed
analysis of the main parameters of the exhibition, and homes in on the
relationship of its artistic and philosophical programmes. Hudek also con-
textualises Les Immatériaux in relation to contemporaneous developments in
conceptual and postmodern art.

Francesca Gallo has contributed a new text in which she highlights the
selection of some contemporary artists for the exhibition, especially some
female artists in whose work the notion of “the immaterial” features in a
particularly pertinent manner. Gallo also suggests that more recent internet-
based artworks continue the line of questioning communication and materi-
ality first proposed in the exhibition. 29

29 We had originally also planned to include a chapter from German art historian Antonia
Wunderlich’s book about Les Immatériaux entitled Der Philosoph im Museum (Bielefeld:
Transcript Verlag, 2008), in which she describes the “Phénoménologie de la visite” in
great detail, offering a most comprehensive account of what could actually be seen
and experienced in the exhibition. Wunderlich puts together a site-by-site description
of the exhibition, drawing on the catalogues as well as reviews, interviews and other
statements by members of the audience, journalists and team members. Regrettably,
the translation and reprint of this 150-page text, which is currently only available in
German, were impossible to realise for the present volume; it will, however, no doubt be
an important source for any future research on Les Immatériaux.
Introduction 21

The French art historian Thierry Dufrêne contributes the hypothesis that, by
analogy with the conception of the “immaterial”, the exhibition also implicitly
proposed a concept of the “immodern”, which would not be the negation but
rather a specific inflection of the modern. Dufrêne situates the immodern as
the ontology of interaction, juxtaposing the modern (subject) and postmodern

The artist Jean-Louis Boissier has contributed two texts. One is an interview
conducted by Andreas Broeckmann in which Boissier speaks about the his-
torical context in which Les Immatériaux was realised. Importantly, he provides
insights into the curatorial and production process which do not belittle
Lyotard’s role and impact on the project, yet which underscore the importance
of the contributions of Thierry Chaput, Philippe Délis, the team of the CCI, as
well as the dozens of other cooperation partners and participants.

The impression that it is historically untenable to speak of Les Immatériaux

as “Lyotard’s exhibition” was confirmed by Lyotard himself when, in the 1984
report included in this volume, he repeatedly spoke about the team and
the consensual way of working. Even in the opening sentence of the report,
Lyotard refers to “the question of installation as we have collectively thought
it through”. With regard to the catalogue and what would become the “Album”,
documenting the preparations of Les Immatériaux, Lyotard acknowledged that
this volume would also “include the team’s working texts spanning almost
two years”, thus going back long before he himself joined the project. Lyotard
recounts that when he suggested some changes to the spatial layout of the
exhibition, “this proposition was rejected unanimously by the team almost
without discussion, without any argument – fundamentally rejected, as if the
team understood that we could not get to the root of this problem of post-
modern space through a rapid, controlled spatial layout of a plan for the
exhibition.” 30 Elsewhere in the report, speaking about the adaptation of the
concept of the postmodern to the exhibition space, Lyotard pointed to the
consensus within the planning team: “If now I take this barely sketched-out
model and transport it to the case of the exhibition, asking myself, there-
fore, what a postmodern exhibition corresponding to the metropolis or to the
nebula of conurbation could be, then I am indeed obliged – and this is what
we have all concluded – we are obliged to refuse the traditional dispositif of the
gallery and the salon – that is to say, the dispositif which opposes, for example,
rooms and the corresponding corridors, habitats and lines of circulation.” 31
In this passage, Lyotard expands the authorial subject of the exhibition by

30 Lyotard 1984, in this volume, p. 29, 63, and 55, respectively.

31 In this volume, p. 58 (emphasis added).
22 30 Years after Les Immatériaux

pointing to the organising team, indicating that the exhibition as a whole was
such a collective effort. 32

Boissier’s second contribution is a case study on the interactive installation

Le Bus, which he and his students at the University Paris 8 produced for Les
Immatériaux. The text is not only a detailed account of the project and of the
conditions under which it came about, but it also exemplifies how the items
and artworks on display in the exhibition each had a history before and after
Les Immatériaux. The text indicates how a detailed historical account of the
exhibition project as a whole will have to place a focus on many, if not each
of the individual objects and their producers, and the research that went into
them, in order to provide a full picture of what Les Immatériaux meant in the
broader context of art, science and theory, and the correspondences between

The third part of the book contains six reflections on the philosophical ques-
tions posed by Lyotard and present in the exhibition, especially with regard to
the concept of anamnesis. Two former students of Lyotard’s, Bernard Stiegler
and Anne-Elisabeth Setjen, provide both an anamnesis of Lyotard’s exhibition
and of their personal exchanges with him. In her contribution, Setjen explores
the relation between Les Immatériaux and Lyotard’s reading of Kant’s Critique
of the Power of Judgement. Les Immatériaux demonstrates Kant’s concept of
reflective judgement, not only in the exhibition itself, but also for its students,
visitors, etc. It is in light of the différend that the reflective judgement becomes
autonomous in search of the sensus communis, or what she refers as the tran-
scendentaux. The postmodern, Sejten shows, can be read as the reincarnation
of Kant’s sublime, as well as an act of resistance against the “too human”

In contrast, Bernard Stiegler criticises Lyotard for having ignored the shadow
of the sublime. According to Stiegler, Lyotard didn’t see the relation between
techné and the sublime (the product of the imagination and reason) in a
profound way, and hence ignored a political economy of the immaterial which
has become more and more determined by industry. Stiegler goes back to
his early work Technics and Time 3, in which he developed the concept of the
fourth synthesis of the understanding, as a critique of Kant’s three syntheses:
namely, apprehension in intuition, reproduction in the imagination, and
recognition in a concept. The fourth synthesis is the exteriorised memory or
the tertiary retention, which conditions the other three. If one follows Kant
in saying that the faculties of the understanding, judgement and reason are
built upon one another, then there is also a relation between the sublime

32 In a future, more extensive research effort, the contributions of the participating

individuals and groups, and the chronology of their interactions, will have to be etched
into relief.
Introduction 23

and techné. Stiegler shows that Lyotard’s interpretation of Kant lacks the
pharmacological critique which becomes urgent in our time.

Yui Hui’s and Charlie Gere’s texts offer two different readings of anamnesis
in relation to the exhibition. Situating the question of the Other in Lyotard’s
writings before and after the exhibition – The Differend (1983) and The
Inhuman (1988) – Hui’s text poses the question: Is the postmodern merely a
European project? The exhibition, for Lyotard, was an occasion to reflect on
a new metaphysics, one that distances itself from the modern. During the
preparation of the exhibition, Lyotard saw the possibility of locating such a
metaphysics in Spinoza or in the Japanese Zen Buddhist Dôgen. Lyotard posed
the intriguing question of whether the new technologies might give rise to the
possibility of achieving a form of anamnesis which he called “passage”. Lyotard
elaborated on his concept with reference to Freud’s concept of Durcharbeiten,
as well as to Dôgen’s concept of “the clear mirror”. Hui’s text addresses
Lyotard’s question by reflecting on the differences between the conceptions
of techné and anamnesis in the philosophical West and East, and suggests
pushing Lyotard’s question in the direction of a programme of re-orientation
in the global context.

Gere’s text proposes to understand the exhibition, and especially the use of
the headphones and their soundtrack, as an anamnesis of the Holocaust.
Reflecting on Lyotard’s writing on the hyphen in the expression “Judeo-
Christian”, and on Georgio Agamben’s critique of Derrida’s project of decon-
struction as a “thwarted messianism“ of “infinite deferment“, Gere proposes
that writing has sublated the difference between Judaism and Christianity, and
hence necessitates the repression and forgetting of the former by the latter.
Gere points out the references to Auschwitz in Les Immatériaux and suggests
that the use of the soundtrack and headphones can be interpreted as an
anamnesis of the lost voice of God in philosophy as “gramma“.

In their texts, Robin Mackay, and Daniel Birnbaum and Sven-Olov Wallen-
stein, explore the political dimension of Les Immatériaux as resistance.
Mackay provides a rich contextualisation of the exhibition within the politics
of the Centre Georges Pompidou, as well the role of the Centre Pompidou in
the development of the culture industry in France. He also offers an accel-
erationist reading of Lyotard’s exhibition as a critique of Nick Srnicek and Alex
Williams’s 2013 Manifesto for an Accelerationist Politics, which suggests that
the acceleration of capital and technologies will speed up capitalism, as well
as lead to its self-destruction. Mackay proposes that Lyotard recognised the
double effect of such acceleration. It intensifies the inquietude of the human
subject in losing its role as master in the postmodern epoch (the first sense of
the inhuman), but also leads to its hyper-exploitation (the second sense of the
inhuman) without emancipation. Instead, Mackay considers Les Immatériaux as
a laboratory for a third way out.
24 30 Years after Les Immatériaux

Birnbaum and Wallenstein provide another reading of the resistance of Les

Immatériaux by offering speculations about a sequel exhibition that Lyotard
mentioned in his seminars (provisionally entitled Résistances), which was never
realised but which would supposedly have conceived resistance in terms of
“noise, distortion, and the dimension of experience that resists both con-
sciousness and language”. Birnbaum and Wallenstein’s text aims to recon-
struct this notion of resistance by going back to Lyotard’s earlier writings on
concepts such as touching, event and passibility. Birnbaum and Wallenstein
also locate the concept of resistance in Lyotard’s writings on aesthetics, and in
his interpretations of the work of Karel Appel, Sam Francis and others. Their
text resonates with those of Hui and Sejten on Lyotard’s search for a concept
of anamnesis that would break from the traditional conception of the relation
between technology and memory.

This book derives from a research project that began in the summer of 2013
at the Leuphana University of Lüneburg. The aim of the project has from its
outset been to provide an historical account of both the art and theory of this
mysterious exhibition, Les Immatériaux, 30 years after its occurrence. Given
the significance of Les Immatériaux, this publication is only the beginning of
a reconstruction of the epochal transformation of these past decades. We
would like to thank Leuphana University and our colleagues at the Centre
for Digital Cultures for the opportunity to work on this important project,
especially Claus Pias, Timon Beyes, Tina Ebner, Mathias Fuchs, Erich Hörl and
Andreas Bernard, who have provided valuable support throughout the last
two years. The funding of our work was provided through the Hybrid Pub-
lishing Lab and the research group on Art and Civic Media in the EU Innovation
Incubator project of Leuphana University. In Paris, our research has been
made possible by the Centre Pompidou and its staff, where Nicolas Roche,
Didier Schulmann, Jean Charlier and Jean-Philippe Bonilli were more than
helpful in giving us access to the resources in the Archives. We are also
grateful for instructive conversations with Jean-Louis Boissier, Thierry
Dufrêne, Anne-Marie Duguet and Bernard Stiegler. At Meson Press, Mercedes
Bunz, Marcus Burckhardt and Andreas Kirchner have made the publication
possible. We would like to extend special thanks to Madame Dolores Lyotard
for generously granting us the copyrights of the unedited text of Jean-François
Lyotard, and to Robin Mackay for the translations from the French. We also
would like to thank Damian Veal and Thomas Munz for their diligence in
correcting and cleaning up the manuscript. Last but not least, we would like
to thank the authors for their contributions and discussions. Together, we will
take it from here.
After Six Months of
Work… (1984)

Jean-François Lyotard

After six months of work in partnership with the team at the Centre de
Création Industrielle (CCI), and with one year to go before the opening of
the exhibition entitled Les Immatériaux, I would like to take stock, firstly by
making a few clarifications concerning the conception of this exhibition, then
by setting out the question of installation as we have collectively thought
it through, and reporting on our intended responses to the question of
installation, or at least their general direction. Those are the principal points
that I would like to cover here.

The initial title of the exhibition, as stated in the plan of the Centre Georges
Pompidou, was Les nouveaux matériaux et la creation [New Materials and
Creation]. Such a title obviously brings with it a whole way of thinking, a whole
horizon of thinking which we might set out as follows: in making a very fine-
grained analysis of natural givens, intelligence arrives at certain elements;
it synthesises these elements, it reorganises them, aided by the creative
imagination, and in this way engenders hitherto unknown objects. And the
philosopher, when he scans this horizon, recognises the figure of modernity,
which is perpetuated in the form of a subject that is intelligent, imaginative,
and voluntary, a subject that takes hold of a world of given objects and
analyses them – that is to say, a subject that reduces them to their finest, most
imperceptible elements, and proves his mastery of these givens by creating
from these elements completely new tools, new materials, new matter, even.

By calling the exhibition Immatériaux, we had, if I may say so, a number of

claims in mind. Firstly, we must understand materials in a broad sense, as we
have already written, extending the meaning of the word material [matériau]
to also cover referents [matières], hardware [matériels], matrices [matrices],
30 30 Years after Les Immatériaux

and even maternity [maternité]. Tracing the common origin of these terms to
the sense of the root mât, which means both measurement and construction,
we tried to rethink everything that the modern project, the project of the
figure of the subject I just mentioned, tends to treat as a sort of passivity to be
conquered, as data to be analysed. That is to say that I would like personally,
in my capacity as a philosopher, to give the word “material” a philosophical
pertinence that necessarily exceeds the sense of the word as it is used, for
example, by the architect or the painter. If in saying “material” I also under-
stand something as maternity – that is to say, as origin – then obviously I am
posing a problem, that of authentication – a problem of authority, a problem
of beginnings; and from that point of view, the term “material” immediately
raises a question that is generally not considered in relation to the figure
of modernity – precisely that of the intelligent, imaginative, and voluntary
origin which exerts its domination, its hegemony, its mastery, over what is
given. That is the first point. Of course, by distinguishing between content
[matière], hardware [matériel], matrix [matrice], maternity [maternité], and
support [matériau], we seek to redistribute the term “material”, which as
a term remains rather vague with regard to certain extremely precise and
specific functions that are generally distinct for the communications engineer,
for example, but also for the linguist and, probably, for the philosopher. This
is why, in the first project plan connected with this exhibition, we took as
a reference-point the model of the structure of communication that dis-
tinguishes between the sender and the recipient of a message – which already
gives us two instances – but also the code in which this message is written
– a third instance – the support upon which it is written – a fourth instance
– and the referent of the message – a fifth instance. It seemed to us that we
could distribute the different roots of mât in accordance with this structure
of communication in a way that is necessarily arbitrary yet convenient, one
that would give us a sorting mechanism for the enormous amount of things
that the subject demanded we deal with. Thus we decided that the sense
of maternity obviously belonged to the role of the sender, the sender being
the father or mother, as you wish, of the message. As for the word content
[matière], on the other hand, if we follow the usage that is common in high
schools, colleges, teaching establishments, and libraries, when we speak of
content we mean what the message is about, the matter of which it speaks
– that is to say, the referent; thus content becomes referent, content comes
under the pole of the referent – when we speak of content in the com-
municational structure, it is the referent pole we are discussing. Similarly,
matrix [matrice] can be identified, a little arbitrarily, yet not insignificantly, with
the code in which the message is written, and hardware [matériels] are the
means of transmission of the message; the hardware is the way in which the
message is carried, transported from sender to recipient; these two are there-
fore devices for the transmission and capture of messages, whatever they may
After Six Months of Work... (1984) 31

be. And then the support [matériau] proper can be identified with the material
medium of the message – that of which the message is made. Distributing the
different senses of the word mât in accordance with the structure of com-
munication in this way, we have at our disposal a way of filtering out what will
interest us in the exhibition, of choosing what will be pertinent in relation to
our problem.

We must of course emphasise the fact that, in taking this communicational

structure as a paradigm and at the same time as a filtering mechanism
for what we want to show, we have accepted the hypothesis that belongs
specifically to modernity, namely that every given is a message. What I mean
is that if, for example, we take the case of architecture, and think about it in
terms of this structure of communication, we are saying that, for example,
the building, or this room, is itself a message, that this message has a sender,
that is to say that it is engendered by a maternity [maternité], that it has an
author who authenticates it; that it aims at a recipient and therefore that it
can be grasped in specific ways by specific hardware [matériel]; that it is in
some way inscribed in a support medium [matériau] according to a code that
is its matrix [matrice]; and finally that this building has a referent [matière]
– that is, it “speaks” of something. The same would apply if it were a ques-
tion of a painting (to stay within the domain of the arts), but also if it were a
question of a light signal emanating from a sun many millions of light-years
away; and it would be the same if it were a question of mutant bacteria in a
biochemical laboratory – these, also, would be treated as a message. This is
an idea that has become commonplace. It is closely linked to the very idea of
modernity, for it is evidently only at the cost of making every given a message
that the hegemony of the intelligence, will, and imagination of the subject can
be applied to a given, for this application means very simply that the given
must be understood as a sign, and thus as referring, and as being immediately
integrable into language. Basically it will always be a question of asking: What
does it speak of? How does it speak? What does it speak with? What speaks
and what does it speak to? Presupposed in the very idea of modernity is the
idea that everything speaks, and that it is enough, in short, to find the constit-
uent elements of the message, since it is these elements that are given by the
structure of communication itself. The message is controlled and controllable
once all of these instances have been defined. In this sense, then, there is
nothing new here in relation to the modern project, but a rather precise way
of stretching the meaning of the word “material”, like a sort of fabric, in order
to draw it, to stretch it over the structure of communication which is, to my
eyes – and I believe that we all agree on this now – the very figure of modernity
in its treatment of what is given.

But as you have obviously noticed, we do not say “material”, we say

“immaterial”. And when we say immaterial, we obviously mean something
32 30 Years after Les Immatériaux

extremely precise: that the contemporary situation – which of course remains

to be described – this project of modernity which extends its communicational
web to the totality of all possible givens so as to be able to control them by
way of translation; in short – since it is a question of translation, a question
of the message – that this project is realised fully in the contemporaneity in
which we find ourselves today, and which I characterise essentially on the one
hand as technoscientific, and on the other as historical – though we may come
back to these two points; that this project, then, linked to these structures, is
fully realised; but that at the same time this very realisation, this completion
of modernity, destabilises the figure of modernity and that, by dint of its very
perfection, it arouses disquiet. In particular, the negation im- in “immaterials”
indicates the situation of a face-to-face, a confrontation that opposes the
subject, the subject of will, of spirit, of the gaze, to that which is not him,
and which falls under the general denomination mât. This face-to-face situ-
ation, then, is undermined today. It is undermined not only, as I have said,
by technoscience; it is undermined by what I just now called history – that is
to say, by a sort of chagrin which, in the twentieth century, has replaced the
hope that had been opened up by modernity in the strict sense at the end of
the eighteenth century, two centuries ago. This chagrin is what I would call the
contemporary historical sentiment, insofar as, certainly, most of the hopes
of the Enlightenment era – which were not solely technoscientific, but also
political – are, I would not say thwarted, but in any case unfinished – this is
the object of a discussion with Jürgen Habermas concerning the completion
or otherwise of this project of modernity. What I want to say is that, precisely
because it results from this project, in a sense not only does technoscience
upset and undermine that project, but that in the order of global politics for
the last two centuries, the idea of an enlightened, luminous society, a society
transparent to itself, whether we call it a socialist or liberal society, it doesn’t
really matter, has receded considerably for us today – and this is what I call
chagrin. And in this sense, by calling this exhibition Les Immatériaux, we
mean, among other things, that it is a question of contributing to a sort of
work of mourning for modernity. We must mourn for modernity, or at least
certain aspects of modernity that today seem illusory or dangerous; and we
must propose this precisely on the occasion of a reflection on the structure
of communication and on its pertinence to the contemporary context. I
would say, to jump ahead a little, that what is striking in this completion of
the modern project, this hegemony over objects, which at the same time is a
destabilisation of the modern project – what is striking is that, on the technos-
cientific level, we see a sort of reinforcement, an exaggeration almost, of
the intimacy between the mind and things. For example, the software that
is coming into general use on all scales is mind incorporated into matter;
synthetic products, polymers for example, and all such chemical derivatives,
are matters that are a result of knowledge – they are instigated by the mind.
After Six Months of Work... (1984) 33

Biochemical, or more precisely, biogenetic manipulations, genetics, show

that the mind itself, in its most intimate properties and characteristics, can
be treated as matter, because it is matter. When modernity presupposes that
everything speaks, this means that so long as we can connect to it, capture it,
translate it and interpret it, there is no fundamental difference between data
and a phrase; there is no fundamental difference between a phenomenon of
displacement in an electromagnetic spectrum and a logical proposition, and
given this fact, in this face-to-face relation to a universe that is his to dominate
– a heroic relation, I would say – in order to make himself the master of it,
man must become something else entirely: the human subject becomes no
longer a subject but, I would say, one case among others, albeit a case which
retains this privilege, until proven otherwise (which is extremely improbable):
that we can well imagine that there is no similar case in the whole universe,
subject to a complete inventory being made. Yet it is just one case among the
many multiple interactions that constitute the universe. You see that, from
this “immaterials” point of view, we have emphasised – and this is a part of
the work of mourning – a kind of counter-figure that takes shape within the
figure of modernity, a counter-figure within which man does not play the
role of the master. One might call this figure postmodern, insofar as it has
always been present in modernity, but it might be the very completion of the
technoscientific project of modernity. And as this project is destabilised, it
allows this counter-figure to appear more clearly than before. I would say that
we could call it postmodern insofar as this counter-figure brings with it a sort
of disappointment in regard to the project of domination, and that it con-
sists in mourning it; but I would say that this makes the figure rather cheerful
because, once mourning is over, then happiness comes. But of course this
counter-figure is uncertain. And above all, I would say that what this exhibition
is interested in – probably the most important thing – is that we know very
well that there was a metaphysics corresponding to the technoscience of
domination, which was the metaphysics of the subject, the metaphysics of
Descartes and of all thinking of the subject up to and including the twentieth
century; but that we are not sure what kind of metaphysics could be
appropriate to the technoscience of interaction. Not only what metaphysics,
what thought, but also what politics, since it is easy to see what the politics of
the subject corresponding to the technoscience of domination was: precisely
the politics of state power, I would say. If not that of the totalitarian state then
in any case that of the hegemonic state – a state that, moreover, allows, before
its very eyes, the development of capital as the truth of the metaphysics of will
and domination. But this metaphysics is becoming less and less pertinent – I
think many scientists are aware of this – for contemporary technosciences
and contemporary politics alike. I don’t mean to say that the hegemony of the
state and of capital has disappeared – far from it, alas – but that in a certain
sense it was already destroyed, that we no longer expect any good, any justice,
34 30 Years after Les Immatériaux

from these figures, and that, consequently, it falls to us to find a thought and
a practice within the framework of the technoscience of interaction – one
which, in short, would break from the thought and the practice of science, of
technology, and of domination. And in a certain sense, it is this formidable
problem that Les Immatériaux tries to pose. More formidable yet would be the
claim that, in this exhibition, we have to pose the problem that is linked to
postmodernity – that is to say, the question of what kind of political power is
compatible with a generalised figure of interaction.

Following these few clarifications concerning the project plan, and before
tackling the question of its actual spatial layout [mise en espace], I would like to
turn to some associations surrounding the term “immaterials” – and these are
associations rather than analyses. For me, the word “immaterial” is associated
primarily with the word “immature”, which is an English word, but one that is
increasingly used in French. By immature I mean that, with this technoscience,
as with this new politics in waiting, there is something childlike in our con-
temporary situation. Within the figure of modernity, childhood was a situation
in which that which belongs to nature and that which belongs to culture – or
rather, I would say, that which belongs to matter and that which belongs to
language – is not yet dissociated, is indiscernible, indiscernibly combined,
mixed. There is a sort of admixture of nature in culture and of culture in
nature that is characteristic of childhood. Now, if there is indeed, as I said,
such an intimacy of the mind and of matter in the new technology, then one
might characterise the latter as placing humanity in a situation of childhood.
To take an example from architecture, in the Discourse on Method a whole
page – more than one in fact – is dedicated to a comparison between the
construction of a rational method and the organisation and construction of a
city. Descartes complains – or at least pretends to complain – that these cities
were not constructed rationally but were made bit by bit, neighbourhood by
neighbourhood, according to needs, according to demographics, invasions,
the requirements of new trades, population growth or decline; and that all of
this obviously leads to great disorder, whereas if a city could be constructed,
as we would say today, to plan – that is to say first of all on paper – then we
would see clearly in this city, we would be able to orient ourselves in it very
easily; the method being, at least in this text, in Descartes’s eyes (at least
this particular Descartes) something like a plan of domination specifying
the procedures to be employed in order to master an object of knowledge.
Well, in today’s situation, what is called the crisis of architecture precisely
tends toward a kind of turning away from this idea, which was still that of the
modern movement in architecture – that of an entirely programmed, entirely
predictable organisation of architectural and urban space. On the contrary,
this crisis consists in perceiving that the charm, what I would call the almost
ontological beauty and value of Italian cities, comes from the fact that they
were in fact constructed exactly in the way that Descartes complains of – in
After Six Months of Work... (1984) 35

a non-dominated way, always in close proximity to the event, an event that

could be either the taking possession of the city by some prince of another
city, or the accession to power within the city itself of a suddenly rich family,
or else the necessity of opening a new space for popular representation
– all of this means that the classes, for example, and the routes one finds
through these Italian cities do not at all resemble the urban ideal projected
by the King of France onto the Place Royale in Nancy or Charleville, or the
Place des Vosges. There is thus a return to a type of architecture and an
urbanism that is close to the event, which for us today seems like a sort of
lost ideal, a lost model. All things being equal, it is against the same Des-
cartes who is startled at the fact that one was a child before being a man, and
who could not manage to think childhood, and who wished to overcome this
childhood at the architectural and urban level through a complete planning
of streets, of places, of dwellings – it is against him, in a certain way, that
today’s architecture tries to think when it tries to think, I would say, a child
city, a city in which the “birthing” of the dwelling is incomplete, and continues
to be incomplete. It is not made once and for all, and it is not a question of
respecting a plan that has already been made. On the contrary, it is a question
of allowing to happen what must happen – whatever happens – and of making
a place for it within a space that is necessarily fluctuating. I am not saying that
this is an ideal of the postmodern architecture that calls itself “postmodern”,
and which is infinitely more suspect; but in any case, I see very well how there
is something far too mature in the architectural models of … [word missing in
manuscript] or of Le Corbusier, and how, on the contrary, what we need today
is a child city, a child habitat in the sense that I just described, and in the sense
that, for example, Walter Benjamin describes in his Berlin Childhood. So that is
a first meaning associated with “immaterials”.

Next I would like to associate a second term with this word “immaterial”, the
term of the increate [incréer], or, if you prefer, the transitive. Let me remind
you that the initial plan for the exhibition gave it the title “New Materials and
Creation”, but that we realised that, when we speak of creation, creativity,
the creative society (as I have read recently, rather than consumer society),
creator, and even CAD – computer-aided design, but we might also say
computer-aided creation – we interpret the technological mutation with which
we are concerned (and also the historical change – we must not forget that
here) as being still, and only, modern; that is to say that basically we think that,
on the occasion of this particular technological mutation, man continues to
aim at the mastery of the world – and of himself of course – and that, having
made one more step forward in the means of this mastery, this control, he
effectively approaches the ideal of the creator. That this is a theological word
only reinforces what I say, for if it is true that modernity starts with Saint
Augustine, it is also true that it continues with Descartes. The difference
between the two is vast and yet slight, vanishing, since it goes without saying
36 30 Years after Les Immatériaux

that both of them imply a creative origin – a maternity, to use the word I used
before. The fact that this origin is called “God” in Saint Augustine and “ego” in
Descartes is of no great importance, for in both cases we remain within the
field of a thinking of a modernity which is that of a subject who creates his
world, for the ends of the arrangement of this world and the enjoyment of this
world, the enjoyment of knowing, of power; and that, fundamentally, if we
think the new technologies under the category of creation, if we continue to
maintain this idea as if all the new technologies did was to fulfil this desire, this
infinity of modern will that is called creation, then I believe we miss something
that is very important in this technological mutation, in this third technological
revolution, as it is known – namely, I would say, the prospect of the end of
anthropocentrism. In any case, this, to my eyes, is the prospect that we may
look towards on the occasion of this transformation, this greater intimacy of
intelligence and the world, of language and of things that the technologies in
question yield: that the counter-figure inscribed in modernity – the modern
counter-figure of modernity, that which precisely does not wish to follow the
paranoia of the subject dominating the totality of the mât – may emerge. If you
say creation, that means that you prohibit the other metaphysics that I evoked
earlier: a metaphysics in which, precisely, man is not a subject facing the world
of objects, but only – and this “only” seems to me to be very important – only a
sort of synapse, a sort of interactive clicking together of the complicated inter-
face between fields wherein particle elements flow via channels of waves; and
that if there is some greatness in man, it is only insofar as he is – as far as we
know – one of the most sophisticated, most complicated, most unpredictable,
and most improbable interfaces. You see that what I am indicating here is,
perhaps only for myself – and I apologise to my collaborators if so – that
on the occasion of these new technologies, perhaps there is a decline of
humanism, of the self-satisfaction of man within the world, of narcissism or
anthropocentrism, and that an end of humanism may emerge. And I must
say that for me it would be a great happiness in my latter years to observe
the decline of this most miserable aspect of miserable modernity; not only
because, as I have already said, this aspect has an extraordinarily high cost,
in blood, in violence, in terror and death; but also because, philosophically,
it is most impoverished. And if we really have to name names, then I would
say that the metaphysics that may emerge through these new technologies
would not be that of Descartes, but rather that of someone like Spinoza; or
if you prefer, a metaphysics that would be more along the lines of Zen – not
the Californian brand of Zen, but that of the great Zen tradition that is, for
me, incarnated in that great Japanese philosopher, living in China, called Ehei
Dôgen. This is what I mean when I say “interaction”. When I speak of inter-
action I don’t want to rehash that petty ideology that attempts to make up
for the inability of current media to allow the recipient to intervene in what
he sees or hears, and which then heralds interaction as a great triumph in
After Six Months of Work... (1984) 37

the reinstatement of dialogue between transmitter and receiver, which I find

rather conceited – I have little faith in dialogue, for it, also, must be critiqued in
relation to its very Platonic origins. When I say interaction, what I am thinking
of is rather a sort of ontology of the endless transmission of messages which
are translated by each other, for better or worse, as much as possible, and
where man himself is not the origin of messages, but sometimes the receiver,
sometimes the referent, sometimes a code, sometimes a support for the
message; and where sometimes he himself is the message. This plasticity
of humans means that this structure of communication today seems like
something upon which identities can no longer be fixed: we can no longer
say that in the structure of communication man is, for example, in the role of
the sender any more than that of the receiver. With the advance of scientific
research – but also literary, philosophical, and artistic research – it seems
that he may occupy many places in this structure; so this is what I mean by

I would now like to move on to a new group of associations around the theme
of time. The question of time will play a considerable role in the exhibition,
as I shall explain later on. And the group of associations that I have in mind
ultimately comprises, to simplify somewhat, two main tendencies which
are perfectly contradictory. On one hand we are concerned with these new
technologies, but also with the so-called postmodern society, in which we
maintain a relation to time that comes from modernity, and which is the
extension of the modern project of domination. Contemporary technologies
and the contemporary way of life aim to exert man’s mastery over time in
the same way that the modern project aimed, and still aims, to exert man’s
mastery over space. I would associate the immaterial with the immediate, in
the sense that mastery over time implies the abolition of any delay, and the
capacity to intervene here and now. The other tendency (I shall come back
to this point in a few moments), which is in perfect contradiction to the first
one – and to my mind this contradiction illustrates very specifically the con-
tradiction of postmodernity itself, which at once completes modernity, or at
least extends it, yet on the other hand contradicts and overturns it – the other
tendency in the relation of man to time today is that, precisely because of the
importance accorded to domination over time, and the value of immediacy,
man encounters probably more than ever his incapacity to dominate time
precisely insofar as time is not a material. It is difficult to conceive of space
without the bodies that occupy space, whereas time, on the contrary, can not
only be conceived of but even experienced without any body occupying time;
what occupies time is not bodies, and thus, in this sense, time is the form (to
speak like Kant) par excellence – or the medium, if you prefer – of immateriality.
In philosophy it used to be called “inner sense”, but obviously this is a term
that we can no longer use today. I will return to these two associations – the
association of immateriality with immediacy, and the counter-association of
38 30 Years after Les Immatériaux

immateriality with unmasterability. A first point: to master the object – what

I have called “mât” – the mind translates the properties of that object, or at
least those that are considered to be exploitable, and this is what the term
“project” means: that the object is addressed in view of exploitation, that
is to say in view of domination and usage. Therefore the mind translates
the properties judged to be exploitable in language, algebraic language for
example, and retranslates the equations obtained into geometrical properties
– at least this was the way in which the modern project proceeded. Thus space
– which is given spontaneously, naturally, through sight for example, but also
through hearing – space received in this way by the corporeal human subject
is replaced by a controlled space, one that is controlled via this procedure
of analysis, a procedure of translation into mathematical language, and a
procedure of synthesis that permits the re-translation of equations back
into lines and bodies, a procedure for passing from arithmetic and algebra
back into geometry and mechanics – this is a procedure already elaborated
by Galileo and Descartes. If we follow the line of this procedure, the ideal
pursued by this project of control and mastery in relation to time is the
capacity to intervene instantaneously in the object’s behaviour. We will be
able to say that the mastery of the object is complete if, as it evolves indepen-
dently, the observer or the worker can intervene immediately in its behaviour,
and intervene in such a way as to immediately carry out the task that the
observer or the worker judges appropriate. This means that the analysis of
the behaviour of the object, including unpredictable behaviour, and the syn-
thesis of orders to address this object, must occupy the least possible amount
of time. It is clear that cybernetics depends upon this principle, and that this
is why telematics and informatics count time in nanoseconds today, and will
soon count in picoseconds – 10–12 seconds – which on the human scale is
close enough to what we call immediacy. Machines that work on such time-
scales obviously make possible interactions in what we call “real time”; this is
the case, for example, with the Sogitec 4X machine invented at IRCAM, which
allows a composer to intervene in the production of synthesised music as it is
listened to. I would say that this kind of procedure – one of immediate inter-
vention – fully completes the programme of modern metaphysics, which is
also the programme of capitalism – namely, to gain time, to lose as little time
as possible. This means that the exhibition will have to show this conquest
of time, as we say, and will have to do this across a great many apparently
heterogeneous domains. For example, I think that we must use music as a
guiding thread here, for reasons that are easy to understand, because it is
an art of time, and it is therefore in music that, as if by accident, immaterials
have developed most rapidly. But I would very much like, for example, to
compare this musical research to financial research concerning the demateri-
alisation of money and the possibility of carrying out transactions that are
almost immediate, transactions that completely do away with the usual
After Six Months of Work... (1984) 39

delays in realisation. This idea of immediate intervention is closely tied, as I

have said, to the very project of exchange in general – the idea of abridging
as far as possible the distance between the purchase of some goods and the
remittance of the corresponding sum. I don’t want to develop that aspect
here; I just want to say that fundamentally the conquest of now – the con-
quest of the instant, of the straightaway – realises a model of immediacy that
we find in what linguists call performativity. The classic example of a perfor-
mative phrase is that of the chairman of a meeting when he says “I declare
the meeting open”. It is enough for him to say “I declare the meeting open” in
order for the meeting to be open; that is to say that here we have an effective-
ness that is immediate in the sense that the phrase itself is the effectiveness:
it seems to describe a situation but in reality it brings it about; it brings it
about with no further mediation – without someone else needing to carry out
the order, for example. When we make a promise, it is the phrase itself that
performs its meaning, and thus we can say that with the performative we find
ourselves in immediacy par excellence. I would say that the modern project –
and in particular the capitalist project, insofar as it is, obviously, linked to the
model of exchange – is a project of the performative. It is a project of a time
that is entirely at the disposal of he who speaks, and who is in a position to
ensure the immediate effectiveness of that which is enunciated. The clas-
sical thinkers, in the ancient discussion, the “quarrel of the Ancients and the
Moderns”, reflected on the biblical phrase “let there be light, and there was
light”, regarding this as an entirely sublime case of immediacy. It seems to me
that this is precisely the project – or rather, the dream – of modernity; a dream
which, moreover, is closely linked to that of sublimity: its dream would be to
say “let there be the car, and there was the car; let there be petrol, and there
was petrol”. This, I think, is the idea that goes by the name of creation.

This model of performativity, which corresponds in a certain way to the

conquest of the now, implies a sort of priority of language, or in any case a
hegemonic predominance of oral language over written language: “I declare
the meeting open” is only performative at the moment and in the place where
it operates, in actual and punctual fashion; when you read in the minutes of
some meeting, or in a novel, that the chairman has said “I declare the meeting
open”, it does not follow that in your space-time as the reader, some meeting
is now open. The performative is always linked, obviously, to a particular
space-time, to a here and now which are those of the performative phrase
itself, and whose effectiveness is thus linked to the actual enunciation.
Whence the importance accorded in the current problematic to orality; not
only in the problematic, but, I would say, first and foremost in everyday life:
the importance given to the voice over written language is well known to
teachers and pedagogues; effects of neo-alphabetisation, of dyslexia, are
produced by the predominant use of the telephone, of television, of sound
film (I would also include tape recorders) – that is to say, materials that
40 30 Years after Les Immatériaux

transmit the voice in its orality, and which have real time effects. Film-makers
speak of the reality effect; one might speak of a reality effect of time through
oral language which, obviously, written language, language written in a book,
does not have; for there is no effect of performativity upon the reader when
he reads “I declare this meeting open”, whereas on the other hand, if he hears
it, he asks himself immediately what meeting has been opened. Perhaps these
voice-transmitting materials, this precipitation that I have supposed to be
taking place, without being able to attest to it myself, also account for certain
changes in language through the loss or withdrawal of the written linguistic
referent that might slow down important displacements in language use.
Thus, from this performative model, this predominance of articulated
language, there follows a sort of predominance of the general attitude of
reading. By reading I mean not the decipherment of a text in the space that we
call the page, but something a little different: when, for example, we query a
server, on Minitel for example – let’s take the simplest possible example – the
server sends pages to the screen which we read and in which we seek the
information we’re after. This is an exercise in reading, we read page after page;
but this reading, precisely, is not properly speaking a vision, not if we take
vision in a strong sense. It is rather of the order of hearing; and as proof, I
would draw your attention to the fact that a natural voice or a synthetic voice
could very well transmit this readable message were we not able to read it. Of
course this means that the text would be interpreted by an actor, by a reader
– potentially by a robot reader – thus it is very much an art, but it is an art of
time, of the same order as that of music. If, rather than a text, on the screen
page or on any surface whatsoever, you have an image – this is what I call
visible – it gives rise to a vision; and with something like that the voice
– whether robotic or human – cannot reinstate the image for you; by reinstate
I mean that when you see the image, you do not read it, you do not hear it. Of
course the voice can speak to you of the image, but it cannot speak the image
as it speaks a text. In this sense, the traits that form the synthetic letters of
our system of writing are incomparable with the traits that form images, even
those of so-called ideographic languages. And in this sense, I would oppose
vision and hearing as image and language, and of course as space and time. In
front of their screens, humans – contrary to what we might think – cease to be
lookers and become readers – that is to say, essentially, listeners. In this way,
we find ourselves confronting the opposition between the arts of time and the
arts of space, I would say a practice of time and a practice of space – between,
let us say, music and painting, in short. When I say between music and
painting, I mean that voiced, articulated language and music and cinema are
an art of time, and that when we pass from the pen and pencil to the keyboard
for reading/writing, passing by way of the word-processor keyboard, which
had already begun this mutation, we go from a mode that spatialises
inscription – as is always the case in painting, and the first writing is a variety
After Six Months of Work... (1984) 41

of painting – toward a mode that temporalises inscription. This means that the
signifier in this second modality is organised in a chain all of whose elements
are not actualisable at once – in the blink of an eye, as we say – as is the case
for an image, but only successively – or, as linguists say, diachronically. The
screen pages themselves scroll, and when a writer works on a word processor
– something that we are also including in this exhibition – the important thing,
especially if he is used to working with a pen, is that this writer loses his
manuscript page, he loses all the preparatory work where additions are
inscribed; the emendations, erasures, and mistakes which are there together
in the preparatory text all disappear and give way to a text that itself may also
be preparatory, but which is potential – I mean that it is not there to hand, you
can’t put all the edited pages next to each other to get a view of the whole; you
have to bring up one by one this or that past page which has been memorised
in your machine. Instead of a preparatory text it is a potential text, a text that
is a future text because it is in the process of fabrication, but one which, on
the other hand, is more past than the manuscript is, because you can only
recall it page by page, to revise and correct it. You cannot have it here, now, en
bloc; it is never there, any more than a film is ever there as a whole. This also
means that, at the keyboard and before the screen, we have an experience of
time rather than of space. Bizarrely, this predominance of time signifies a sort
of preeminence of movement over rest. Space as the site of inscription –
above all the space of painting or of hieroglyphics, hierographics in general – is
linked to rest, time is linked to movement. The paradoxes of time are
paradoxes of movement, and in a hegemony of reading, like that which I have
just described very clumsily, we might say that space is itself but a particular
case of time, that is to say that rest – the simultaneous grasping of a visual
whole by the eye (a relative rest, since we all know that the eye is in fact very
active and is itself always in movement, but the movement is not in the object,
the movement is in the eye) – this rest itself is a particular case of movement.
You can stop your screen-page to register it in a more stable, slower way, for
example, to change speeds as one does with the procession of frames at the
cinema; but regardless, the frame itself can only be taken as an extreme case
of non-movement, the only universal case being movement (by movement, I
repeat, I understand the movement of the object, by virtue of the same
principle as in music, where it goes without saying that it is the movement of
vibrations that constitute the object to be understood). Now, if there is no
such rest to be grasped in these technologies – if, on the contrary, these
technologies at once constantly record and utilise movement, and only
movement – then it follows that in a certain sense nothing can be grasped in
one go, nothing can take place at the same time. Vision can grasp an actual
whole at the same time – at least this is a prejudice we have always had
– whereas listening never happens at the same time: listening to a piece of
music, even a short phrase, cannot take place all in one go. The phrase is not
42 30 Years after Les Immatériaux

present all at once. The very notion of the “blow”, in this regard – as in the
expression “at one blow” – must be re-examined, since what we call the “blow”
– if we wish to think it here as it takes place, for example, in reflections on
internal time-consciousness – the “blow” of the arrival of a musical note for
example, is an event, a temporal event: something happens. What is this
something that happens? It arrives too soon and too late, meaning that,
insofar as it is not there, it is not there, and as soon as it is there, it is no longer
there as event, it is there as memory, immediate memory. One might say in
relation to the event what Freud said about the traumatic event: a traumatic
event is one in which our affectivity is struck and marked by certain dis-
positions – neurotic dispositions, for example, or certain phantasms – and, as
Freud says, this requires two blows, not just one. It takes a first blow in which
the event is impressed without being recorded, we might say, by the uncon-
scious; and then a second blow in which, on the contrary, an analogue of the
traumatising event makes itself known as traumatising when it is not so in
itself, but only by analogy with the first blow. In this doubling of the blow lies
the whole secret of the fact that time escapes us, that the time of an event
itself escapes us, that we are immanent to this time that we cannot master,
and that, in this sense, immaterials are both threatening as imminences, and at
the same time are unnmasterable.

I would now like to associate the term immaterial with another neighbouring
term, that of the unsexuated or transsexuated; by this I mean that, in the con-
tradictory notion of the immaterial, there is not only the attempt to show
that, in these technologies and in this postmodern history, the voluntarist and
perfectly materialist project of modernity turns back in a sort of dispossession
of will and a dematerialisation of the object; but also that a sort of echo, a sort
of consonance is produced in this reversal of the situation which, it seems to
me, is specifically postmodern: transsexualism. insofar as transsexuals are in a
relation to that referent [matière] that is sex. By referent [matière] I mean that
obligatory reference of the message that is our body, above all our socialised
body, in the sense that the body qua message teaches us something about
sex, teaches us something about what sex we are, and where unfortunately
one does not have any choice beyond that of being a man or a woman. Now,
the phenomenon of transsexuality – which has of course developed thanks to
the progress of medicine, which has developed on a superficial level insofar
as we now see it taking place, but which certainly expresses a desire that is
very old and very profound, a dream – this phenomenon of transsexualism
certainly manifests the indecency of immateriality precisely in the sense that
it denies the alternative “man or woman” in regard to the sexual significance
of the corporeal message. Just as technology and immaterials are incredulous
in regard to the opposition between subject and object, I would say that they
also make us incredulous in relation to sexual difference. In any case, they
allow this incredulity in regard to sexual difference to become visible, beyond
After Six Months of Work... (1984) 43

the equality of the sexes demanded by feminist movements. Wouldn’t the true
aim of these movements – or in any case the true postmodern aim – rather
be the disappearance of the alternative, the transaction between the two
sexes, the constitution of a sort of synthetic product? To understand what I
am saying here one could do no better than to read a passage from Catherine
Millot’s book Horsexe: Essays on Transexuality, which expresses what I want to
say marvellously:

I shall call him Gabriel, after the archangel, in conformity with his desire
to be pure spirit only. He was the only one to take the initiative of talking
with me. Aware that I had already seen a number of female transsexuals,
he phoned me one day to tell me that he wanted to meet me in order to
get the truth about transsexuality straight. He feared that the others had
misled me, and wished to rid me of my illusions, for he could not bear the
idea of people “talking any old rubbish about transsexuality”. He arrived
wearing a man’s suit (transsexuals generally prefer traditional dress;
more informal clothes are sexually less marked), a goatee beard, and was
unquestionably masculine in his bearing and his voice. Straight away he
declared, “The truth about transsexuality is that, in contrast to what they
claim – that their souls are imprisoned in bodies of the opposite sex –
transsexuals are neither men nor women, but something else”.

This is a quote from Gabriel. Millot adds that it is this difference that Gabriel
wants to be accepted, then she lets him speak:

Transsexuals are mutants, different from women when one is all woman,
and different from men when one is all man. I feel and I know that I am
not a woman, and I have the impression that I am not a man either. The
others are playing a game, they are playing at being men.1

Gabriel, she adds, has never felt like she is a man, but that it was because
he was sure of not feeling like a woman that he was called a man. The
unhappiness of transsexuals is that there is no third term, no third sex; and
according to him, society bears the main responsibility for this bipolarity
whose constraints transsexuals suffer from. I would say that – or rather, I will
let Catherine Millot say it:

This aspiration towards a third sex is far more common than transsexual
stereotypes would seem to suggest. Some female transsexuals stick to
their manly pretensions, but in many cases this claim masks a hope of
escaping the duality of the sexes. Transsexuals want to belong to the sex
of angels. 2

1 Catherine Millot, Horsexe: Essays on Transsexuality, trans. Kenneth Hylton (New York:
Autonomedia, 1990), p. 129–130.
2 Ibid., p. 126.
44 30 Years after Les Immatériaux

I find this formula very interesting, and I would say that, in the semantic field
onto which the term “immaterial” leads us, we also find this idea of transsexu-
ality – or, if you prefer, angelism. And here I would not have to look far to find a
whole mystical tradition that, in its own way, anticipated the medical tradition
of postmodern transsexuality.

I would like to associate one last word with that of immaterials, and it is the
word immortals, but I do not have the time to develop that fully here. I will just
read a passage from that old classic, fundamental to the history of technics
and of reflection on technics, Mumford’s Technics and Civilization, where he
writes the following – which has already been largely surpassed since this was
written in 1934, exactly 50 years ago, but which remains all the more true for
the new technologies:

Whatever the psychological reactions to the camera and the moving

picture and the phonograph may be [these are the types of hardware
<matériels> he is thinking about – J-FL], there is no doubt, I think, as to
their contribution to the economic management of the social heritage.
Before they appeared, sound could only be imperfectly represented in
the conventions of writing [which brings us to the problems of inscription
in space and time – J-FL]: it is interesting to note that one of the best
systems, Bell’s Visible Speech, was invented by the father of a man
who created the telephone. Other than written and printed documents
and paintings on paper, parchment, and canvas, nothing survived of
a civilisation except its rubbish heaps and its monuments, buildings,
sculptures, works of engineering – all bulky, all interfering more or less
with the free development of a different life in the same place. [Here
the accent is indeed put on the question of space – J-FL] By means of
the new devices this vast mass of physical impediments could be turned
into paper leaves, metallic or rubber discs, or celluloid films [we could
add, of course, microprocessors and the chips – J-FL] which could be far
more completely and far more economically preserved. It is no longer
necessary to keep vast middens of material in order to have contact, in
the mind, with the forms and expressions of the past. These mechanical
devices are thus an excellent ally to that other new piece of social
apparatus which became common in the nineteenth century: the public
museum. They gave modern civilisation a direct sense of the past and a
more accurate perception of its memorials than any other civilisation, in
all probability, had. Not alone did they make the past more immediate:
they made the present more historic by narrowing the lapse of time
between the actual events themselves and their concrete record. For the
first time one might come face to face with the speaking likenesses of
dead people and recall in their immediacy forgotten scenes and actions …
Thus a new form of immortality was effected; and a late Victorian writer,
After Six Months of Work... (1984) 45

Samuel Butler, might well speculate upon how completely a man was dead
when his words, his image, and his voice were still capable of being res-
urrected and could have a direct effect upon the spectator and listener. 3

You can see here how Mumford, precisely through the mediation of the
immateriality of new materials, and on the other hand the immediacy of
transmission, and particularly the transmission of the voice, rediscovers what
we have said in regard to time, within the perspective – which we have not
spoken about but which must be developed further – of the relation between
immateriality and immortality. And I would add, to complete this field of free
associations, that no doubt we should straightaway associate immortality and
the angelism of which I just spoke.

Now I will address a second part of this reflection on the exhibition Les
Immatériaux, dedicated more directly to the problem posed by what is called
the spatial layout [mise en éspace] of an exhibition; what we might call its
installation. The contract I signed provides that at the end of this month I
supply a synopsis, if only a provisional one, of the exhibition. Synopsis, in
Greek, means that one has an overall view of what one plans to do. With this
principle of an overall view what is presupposed is that the designer of the
exhibition is in a position to bring into view the totality of what he has con-
ceived, to show it at one blow; to give it to be seen at one blow to its recip-
ients. We can see that the very concept of synopsis poses a problem, given
that I have associated time and succession with the notion of immaterials
that I have been constructing. For if it is true that what is characteristic of the
relation being established between the mât in general and the mind is that we
cannot expect the self-evidence of immediacy at one blow, while the synopsis
falls under this delay, this … This is something we remarked upon very quickly
once we started to approach the question of realisation, the passage from
conception to spatial deployment. It was fundamentally impossible – this is
what we quickly understood – to hold to the traditional nature, that is to say
the modern nature, of the exhibition. Exhibition [exposition – also “exposure”]
or manifestation [manifestation] are obviously eminently philosophical
terms. They mean that things are posited here, on the outside, in their man-
ifest aspect. And there is a relation implied in this concept of exhibition, the
relation of a subject who visualises objects, works, who confronts them, who
looks at them face-to-face, with this visualisation – that of those who have
conceived the exhibition – controlling it through the spatial layout itself. Thus
on the part of the recipient who is the visitor, there is the principle that he
is foremost a man who looks, an eye. What is more, this is an eye that is in
movement over a body, an eye that wanders, and therefore one that exists
in the general register of what were called promenades in the eighteenth

3 Lewis Mumford, Technics and Civilization (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1955), p.
244, and 246.
46 30 Years after Les Immatériaux

and nineteenth century – what we could call tourism, without seeking to

distinguish between the two at present. So this is what is presupposed on
the part of the recipient of the exhibition. As for the sender, of whom is
demanded the synopsis of this exhibition, what is required is ultimately that
he anticipates, on paper at least – that he projects – this visit of the recip-
ient, thus showing that its spatial layout will be made in such and such a way,
and that it can be guaranteed that the visitor will conduct himself in such
and such a manner, and that therefore the results of this wandering – of this
promenade or this tour – can be anticipated. This means that the wandering
eye will reconstitute the movement of conception once it is installed – that is
to say, laid out spatially. You can see that this presupposition, inscribed in the
very term “synopsis” or “exhibition”, is something that is handed down to us
from modernity: the first great public exhibitions take place at the end of the
eighteenth century, and salons and galleries are the characteristic spaces of
these public exhibitions, which will subsequently proliferate during the course
of the nineteenth century, with the Republic. What we have to see is that these
spaces are characteristic of modernity for many reasons.

Firstly, the eye, as it is thought in the synopsis or in the exhibition in general,

is the eye of modernity, as it was established during the fifteenth century. It
is a matter of rendering each object visible to this visitor’s eye in a window – I
would even say as a window, or at least as what one might see in a window
or through a window. I thus designate somewhat summarily what fifteenth-
century Italian painters called the veduta – that is to say, the view onto the
vista of a landscape. All the windows to see, or through which to see, are
organised into a façade, they are collected in a façade, an internal façade as
in the case of the Louvre’s Galerie du Bord de l’Eau. It is not the façade of a
house, it is the equivalent of the façade of a house but inside a house. That
is, the gallery in its very construction is like a road within a building, within
a palace—a road which, through the works shown, initially and essentially
perspectivist paintings, opens onto an outside. Which means that the eye
wanders as in a street, but what it sees through the windows are not scenes
that it might see in the street. The visitor is on the inside, he is protected
from the street – that is to say, from what we call reality. But this is no dream
either, for in the dream there is presumably no window, there is no window
at all; oneiric space is not fifteenth-century-type visual space – not a scenic
space, at least. And it is not a dream because, in principle, the space of Italian
Renaissance painting is not troubling in any way; on the contrary, it aims at a
fairly easy recognition of what is in question, of the scene or the characters
of the place or even of the moment concerned in this painted scene. I would
say rather that the multiplicity of windows constituted by paintings hung
on the walls of the gallery opens onto landscapes, portraits, situations,
objects; and all of this forms not reality but culture. Basically, all the scenes
of culture – or in any case a large number of them, a large number of these
After Six Months of Work... (1984) 47

scenes – are presented through these windows which are paintings, hollowed
out fictively on the wall of the gallery. And the function of this exhibition – of
this exhibition which contains in itself the principle of being exhaustive, and
which, also, is an ex-hibition [ex-position] because it is on the outside of the
gallery in the fictive space opened up by the frames – has a function that is
inverse to that of the dream. The imaging function of the exhibition – and
this, moreover, is why this space is privileged – is to identify, to permit the
visitor to identify his belonging to a culture, to identify objects and to permit
identification through the identification of the objects presented. I will add
that, insofar as it is a question of perambulation, it is a question, as we shall
see, of a sort of educational journey. But before talking about this, I should like
to clarify something else: what is visualised – staying with the modern space
of the exhibition still – are fragments of stories that are identifiable because
they are a part of culture. The exhibition allows for a sort of apprenticeship
of recognition, of characters, of places, of artists, of that which is presented
and of the visitor; an apprenticeship in culture for the visitor in the exhibition.
And I would say that this model, this type of auto-identificatory visual machine
that is the exhibition, finds its complement or its reciprocal inverse in the
modern street, which is also conceived as a gallery – unlike what is the case in
a village, for example. The street is conceived as a gallery, the shop windows
of the modern street are like picture frames which in their turn give onto land-
scapes, portraits – scenes which, what is more, just like in the gallery, permit
identification. A little surprise, a little identification; a quick surprise, obviously
elicited with a commercial aim in mind – which is not exactly the case in the
gallery – or at least not always. Into this kind of urbanity, which is an urbanism
of the façade, one can, quite obviously, introduce an aesthetic of shock, of the
shocking – something that tends toward surprise and destabilisation. From
one vitrine to another there are going to be shocking things, and placing things
into vitrines can itself make for a certain surrealism. And here I would say that,
for example, when we say “shock”, we cannot but think of Walter Benjamin’s
outline of an aesthetics of shock for modernity, following Baudelaire. In
certain regards we could specify how, presumably along with postmodernity,
this aesthetic of shock, this aesthetic of sublimity through shock, which is kept
intact in surrealism … but that is another question.

I can now come back to the second aspect of this type of classical schema,
which is in fact a modern schema, of the exhibition – the schema-type of
the modern exhibition: perambulation. I have said that there is an eye, an
eye in movement, an eye that walks. This perambulation is very important
because fundamentally it obliges the designer – the one who is going to make
a synopsis – to ask himself the question: What is it to walk in an exhibition?
Where is one going? One is going toward the exit, okay, but can one get there
in various ways, or via one single path; and what does the exit mean? This
is a rather important difference from the street, where the analogy must
48 30 Years after Les Immatériaux

end, for the street only ever opens onto another street. There will probably
come a moment when, from the street, one passes into the countryside –
an extraordinarily interesting and bizarre moment, in fact; but one that is
increasingly postponed and which, moreover, in contemporary cities and
metropolises, is probably evaded rather than postponed. Which is why streets
in cities, and in the suburbs of metropolises constructed in the ‘30s and ‘60s,
resemble galleries rather than towns. In the modern city, the street leads
to the street; in the gallery, walking leads to the exit; one exits the gallery
when one enters the street. One goes from the street to the gallery, from the
gallery to the street; one goes from one’s home to the street and from the
street to one’s home or to another home. Thus the question of knowing what
one does when one walks through the gallery is, of course, a very worrying
question for someone who has responsibility for presenting a synopsis. One
might be tempted to say – taking up again the analogy of the road and the
gallery (despite the differences I have just mentioned) – that the gallery is like
a rational street, a utopic street. It is a street insofar as it is a series of façades
on the left and right of the visitor, with openings onto fictive spaces which are
both cultural and identificatory spaces; but it is a street ordered, for example,
according to a historical order, as is the case in museums, or according to a
pedagogical order, as is the case in exhibitions – and very often both at once.
Which means that the visitor’s body traverses the spaces and situations
that are shown; he proceeds through them – or, ultimately, his eye proceeds
through them – as one proceeds through a course of study. This traversal is
like a course, a kind of programme of education. In general I believe that the
commissioners and directors of the exhibition, whether consciously or not,
take as their aim the education of the visitor; and that in this sense, the gallery
is a teaching establishment that one goes through faster than a teaching
establishment; it is something like a training film, except that the objects are
generally immobile and it is the viewer who moves. But if this is the case, if
it is indeed a model street, a street that leads not toward the countryside
but toward the heart of culture, a street that goes towards “downtown”,
toward the centre, then this is also characteristic of modernity insofar as this
traversal, which may be long, winding, and even labyrinthine, constitutes a
sort of model of modernity itself. This is already the case in the picaresque
(especially Spanish) novel, and of course in the roman de formation at the end
of the eighteenth and during the nineteenth century, and the modern epic
in general – and also, of course, the Bildungsroman, the novel of culture, the
novel of adventure, the travel novel, which develops in the sixteenth century,
which is entirely marked by modernity, and which fully flourishes in England,
in Germany, in France in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. This novel
is typical of modernity: a subject goes through an experience, and is educated
in going through this experience; he is educated by what he experiences,
by his experiencing of the situations he goes through and by what he has
After Six Months of Work... (1984) 49

experienced. The “formative experience” is a fundamental form of the expres-

sion of the project of modernity.

Here I would like to open up a sort of parenthesis which will make for a
transition toward what I want to say in regard to the spatial layout of our
exhibition, Les Immatériaux, having set out, rather abruptly and insufficiently,
this sort of model of the modern exhibition. I would thus like to take a detour,
to open, in short, a digression, to make a little detour toward someone who,
in his description of exhibitions, contributed powerfully to undoing their
controlled space of modernity, of the dominating gaze and the edifying
organisation. I am thinking of Diderot’s Salon, and in particular the Grand Salon
of 1765 and 1767. What I would like to retain from these salons, above all that
of 1767, is a most significant turn in which I believe the modern space of the
gallery or the salon or the exhibition is meticulously and secretly attacked. It
is the turn whereby, when he describes a whole series of paintings by Vernet
in 1767, Diderot represents them as if they were real sites. He calls them sites,
not paintings, except for the last one, for a very precise reason – just as if they
were real sites in which he was walking. So that, in principle, we are still in the
salon that Diderot describes, before the paintings, but the writer’s expres-
sion is such that it seems that we are taking a sort of promenade, a journey,
a tour which Diderot takes with a character, an Abbé, and his two students,
in real places; so that Vernet’s landscapes are described as realities. Diderot
tries to show that precisely no painter, including Vernet – at least this is the
Abbé’s objection – could equal the beauty of the real landscapes of these sites.
So we find ourselves before the dematerialisation of the painting, of Vernet’s
paintings, and the realisation of what they represent, that is to say the sites
that they make us see, as if these sites were real. And ultimately we observe
an exchange of roles between nature and painting. It is nature that is the
author of the sites that Diderot and his friend the Abbé visit, whereas we know
that it is the painter Vernet who is the author of these sites, in the form of the
paintings that Diderot visits in the exhibition. Diderot begins this passage as

Vernet: I’d inscribed this artist’s name at the head of my page and was
about to review his works with you, when I left for a country close to the
sea and celebrated for the beauty of its sites. There, while some spent
the day’s most beautiful hours, the most beautiful days, their money, and
their gaiety on green lawns, and others, shotguns over their shoulders,
overcame their exhaustion to pursue their dogs through the fields, and
others still wandered aimlessly through the remote corners of a park
whose trees, happily for their young consorts in delusion, are models
of discretion; while a few serious people, as late as seven o’clock in the
evening, still made the dining room resound with their tumultuous dis-
cussion of the new principles of the economists, the utility or uselessness
50 30 Years after Les Immatériaux

of philosophy, religion, morals, actors, actresses, government, the rel-

ative merits of the two kinds of music, the fine arts, literature, and other
important questions, the solutions to which they sought at the bottom
of bottles, and returned, staggering and hoarse, to their rooms, whose
doors they found only with difficulty, and, having relaxed in an armchair,
began to recover from the intensity and zeal with which they’d sacrificed
their lungs, their stomachs, and their reason in the hope of introducing
the greatest possible order into all branches of administration; there I
went, accompanied by the tutor of the children of the household and his
two charges, my cane and writing pad in hand, to visit the most beautiful
sites in the world. My intention is to describe them to you, and I hope that
these descriptions will prove worth the trouble. My companion for these
walks [that is, the Abbé] was thoroughly familiar with the lie of the land,
and knew the best time to take in each rustic scene, and the places best
viewed in the morning hours, which were most charming and interesting
at sunrise and which at sunset, as well as the coolest, shadiest areas in
which to seek refuge from the burning midday sun. He was the cicerone
of this region; he did the honours for newcomers, and no one knew better
than he how to maximise the impact of the spectator’s first glance. We
were off, and we chatted as we walked. I was moving along with my head
lowered, as is my custom, when I felt my movement suddenly checked
and was confronted with the following site.

First Site: To my right, in the distance, a mountain summit rose to meet

the clouds. At this moment chance had placed a traveller there, upright
and serene. The base of the mountain was obscured from us by an
intervening mass of rock; the foot of this rock stretched across the view,
rising and falling, such that it severed the scene’s foreground from its
background. To the far right, on an outcropping of rock, I saw two figures
which could not have been more artfully placed to maximise their effect;
they were two fishermen; one was seated towards the bottom of the rock,
his legs dangling; the other, his catch slung over his back, bent over the
first and conversed with him. On the rugged embankment formed by the
extension of the lower portion of the rock, where it extended into the dis-
tance, a covered wagon driven by a peasant descended towards a village
beyond the embankment: another incident which art would have sug-
gested. Passing over the crest of this embankment, my gaze encountered
the tops of the village houses and continued on, plunging into and losing
itself in a landscape prospect that merged with the sky.

Here begins Diderot’s discussion with the Abbé:

Who among your artists, my Cicerone asked me, would have imagined
breaking up the continuity of this rugged embankment with a clump of
trees? —Perhaps Vernet. —Right, but would your Vernet have imagined
After Six Months of Work... (1984) 51

such elegance and charm? Would he have been able to render the intense,
lively effect of the play of light on the trunks and their branches? —Why
not? —Depict the vast distances taken in by the eye? —He’s done it on
occasion in the past. You don’t know just how conversant this man is with
natural phenomena … I responded distractedly, for my attention was
focused on a mass of rocks covered with wild shrubs which nature had
placed at the other end of the rugged mound. This mass was masked in
turn by a closer rock that, separate from the first one, formed a channel
through which flowed a torrent of water that, having completed its violent
descent, broke into foam among detached rocks … Well! I say to my
Cicerone: Go to the Salon, and you’ll see that a fruitful imagination, aided
by close study of nature, has inspired one of our artists to paint precisely
these rocks, this waterfall, and this bit of landscape. —And also, perhaps,
this piece of rough stone, and the seated fisherman pulling in his net, and
the tools of his trade scattered on the ground around him, and his wife
standing with her back to us. —You don’t realise what a bad joke you are
making, Abbé … 4

Diderot’s accusation against the Abbé, in this fictive dialogue which takes
place within a supposed landscape which in reality is none other than the
landscape painted by Vernet, the Abbé’s “bad joke” consists in the fact that
the Abbé suspects Vernet of having copied in detail a natural landscape which
in reality is none other than a Vernet landscape. Thus here is an exchange of
roles between fiction and reality, between creation and nature, as I said just
now; but what is more interesting is that a rotation takes place between the
instances of the structure of communication: the author of the text passes
into the landscape that he is supposed to be describing, and in this landscape
he holds a dialogue which speaks of this landscape as if it were real when it is
fictive; and what is more, his interlocutor the Abbé speaks of this real land-
scape as a model absolutely inimitable by the very painter whom Diderot – the
author of the text – is eulogising on account of one of his paintings which is
this landscape. It’s a rather simple thing ultimately, and yet it is remarkable
insofar as the space of the gallery and of the exhibition in general is pro-
foundly disrupted by it. For it is no longer an eye that perambulates before
painted landscapes; it is all of a sudden a speech which jumps into the painted
landscape, and which abolishes it qua painted landscape, for it is purely and
simply abolished; and which, from this landscape taken as real instance, as
place, as real space, speaks of the marvel, the sublimity of this landscape as
if it were real, defying all painting to equal this sublimity. Thus here there is a
sort of transfer from the function of the gaze to the function of speech. The
exhibition is exploded, because the windows cease to be windows. Diderot

4 Denis Diderot, “The Salon of 1767”, in Diderot on Art, vol. II: The Salon of 1767, trans. John
Goodman (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1995), p. 86–88 (translation modified).
52 30 Years after Les Immatériaux

jumps through the window, installs himself in the fictive space represented
by the painter, and in doing so defies all possible painting. That is to say that
the truth is that, through the work of writing itself, Diderot no longer seeks
simply to describe what the painter has painted, since he judges that in the
end writing will never be able to equal nature at the level of description, that
writing is an art of time and painting is an art of space, and that the two of
them are incommensurable. On the contrary, Diderot, in his work of writing,
tries to get across to his reader – for we are reading this – what the power of
sublimity of Vernet’s paintings could be for the viewer. Thus here we have a
passage from the gaze – I would say an art of seeing and thus of space – to the
ear and to an art of time; we have, fundamentally, the passage from Vernet’s
paintings to Diderot’s writing, which, in a certain way, breaks open the space
of the gallery of the exhibition, because this passage gives a new hegemony
to the art of speech, of writing, which is an art of time. So that – as critics who
specialise in Diderot have explained very well – this salon of 1767, and before
it that of 1765, are already occasions for Diderot to experiment with writing as
an art of time and thus as music. Fundamentally, Diderot thinks that one can
equal the plastic power of Vernet only through a power, not at all of an equiv-
alent framework of reference, but through a power of evocation, a power of
expression that is equivalent in its order – and its order is the order of time,
that is to say, the musical order. I would say that this rupture, which I cannot
make a fundamental analysis of here, this rupture of the space of the modern
exhibition in favour of something that will contain more of music than of the
gaze, in a certain way not only announces Diderot’s most postmodern texts,
such as Rameau’s Nephew and The Paradox of the Actor or Jacques the Fatalist,
but also announces something that will destroy, within the city itself, the
project of dominant modernity. In this writing experiment of Diderot’s there is
something that tends toward the destruction of a space of façades of mas-
tery, of order: there is a sort of disorder here. Literary critics very often speak
of this passage and of equivalent passages in terms of digression. There is
therefore a sort of digression which is in reality a whole motif, a whole musical
work, and a sort of hysteria of language which tried to provide, within its own
order, an equivalent to the plastic power of the visual work. And I would add
one more thing, which is that it is acted out, of course, and thus it implies a
sort of coldness, for one can only do what Diderot does if one knows very well
how to write, and thus if one is not oneself the victim of a blind propulsion.
This is precisely how the paradox of the actor is announced, since the actor
has to feel all passions, but at the same time has to feel none of them, in order
to be able to reproduce those that he is supposed to act out. Which means
that what becomes important for Diderot is circulation, exchangeability, the
possibility of exiting from the rectilinear, orthogonal modern space, of leaping
laterally into digressive spaces, and this at speed, as we shall see, for example,
in the very constitution of the text called Jacques the Fatalist. The ruptures, I
After Six Months of Work... (1984) 53

would say the montages, between a story or a description, between a salon

that takes place on the floor of the gallery and the story or the description
that takes place in the fictive digressive space of the painting, this montage
takes place without any warning, without any announcement, and thus, as
film-makers say today, there is a cut and a crossfade. It is precisely here that
we meet the theme of shock once more; but it is not shock in the same space
and in the same time, but a shock that has taken place between one space-
time – for example, that of the gallery – and another space-time – for example,
that of Vernet’s painted site, in which Diderot and the Abbé suddenly begin
their discussion. I think that here we find the embryo, the sketch, already
extraordinarily well developed, perhaps unsurpassable, of an aesthetics which
is no longer the aesthetics of modernity, which is, to my eyes, a postmodern
aesthetics insofar as it implies the disappearance of a common referent, of
a shared space-time and, on the contrary, suggests a sort of heterogeneity
or incommensurability between situations and thus between subjects.
Because what interests me is that here it is not so much a matter of formative
experience, and one does not gain so much in experiencing it; instead it is a
matter of rendering oneself sufficiently mobile – the god that Diderot con-
stantly invokes is Vertumnus, who, as we know, is characteristically unstable
– it is a matter of rendering oneself sufficiently flexible and supple to be able
to leap from one space-time to another. I am saying that here this speed –
which is a theme that will be reprised by Stendahl and, of course, today, in the
commentary of someone like Paul Virilio, but also by our very practice of time
in contemporary capitalist and technological society – this speed is already
something which, beyond modernity, announces postmodernity.

We must now describe, following the work of certain sociologists, this post-
modern space-time, particularly – I would say essentially – in what today we
still call the city. Here I follow the brilliant analyses made by Paul Virilio and
Giairo Daghini, published in Change International no. 1 (December 1983). I will
let them speak for themselves, so as to make it understood in what spirit we
set to thinking through the spatial layout, or rather the space-time, of the
exhibition Les Immatériaux. Daghini writes:

[T]he city as form of development plays a fundamental role within what

will come to be defined as the project of modernity – namely, the idea
set forth by modern sciences of an indefinite progression of knowledge,
the aim affirmed in the growth of capitalism of a limitless accumulation
of riches, the revolutionary project or the idea of a progressive social
and moral amelioration, as defended by socialist and communist
movements from the last century onward. It is with this intent that
the modern imaginary, what we might call the modern spirit, detaches
and frees itself from former constraints, and from that positive idea of
progress of which the city is the site. This city, in fact, in itself is one of the
54 30 Years after Les Immatériaux

fundamental objects of production, through accelerated urbanisation and


How else can we explain the enormous expansion, starting in the indus-
trial revolution, of a process of urbanisation which holds itself to be uni-
versal, the burgeoning of the city into the Grossstadt, the inflation of the
latter into the global city, and finally the appearance, analysed by Patrick
Guetz already at the turn of the century, of urban concentration no longer
having the form of the city, but that of conurbations?

These gigantic urban agglomerations which bring together many cities,

and for which even the term “metropolis” seems inadequate, consist of
numerous complex entities, and only appear as the highest point, or at
least as the site of the gestation of the unfinished project of modernity,
through an illusory effect. In reality, the continual mutation of their
forms, the inextricable ramification of diverse speeds and orientations
of development, the internationalisation of forms of central and centred
power constantly modify the very paradigm of modernity and call it into
question. 5

And on the subject of this paradigm, Dhagini says the following:

It is not only the form of the city that is lost during the challenge which,
in the ‘80s, becomes a long crisis; what also disappears is a mode of
production, since a mechanical-industrial paradigm is on the way to
passing into an electronic-nuclear paradigm.

Within this new paradigm the ever more frequent application of infor-
matic procedures to the activities of labour leads to what we might define
as a semiotisation of labour, that is to say a labour that is applied to and
through signs rather than by way of the worker’s direct manipulations of
the machine. To semiotise thus comes down to coding, and coding means
managing: the post-industrial metropolis of the ‘80s is thus presented
to us by institutional theorists as one within which all activities are
resolved into management. Simultaneously the new forms of treatment
of space by means of the combined techniques of informatics and tele-
communications allow the absorption of the “old” metropolitan concen-
tration-standardisations; they authorise the decentring of the production
into new establishments, new “cities”. Still, the invisible networks of the
informatic metropolis which decentre or centre by thrusting its terminals
everywhere, do not at all end up in constellations of new polises, any more
than they constitute new Siedlungen. So it makes sense to ask: What is
this new space that is being constituted today through these “invisible

5 Giairo Daghini, “Babel-Métropole”, Change International, no. 1 (December 1983).

After Six Months of Work... (1984) 55

networks”, what are the societies that inhabit it, and the urban forms that
represent it? 6

This last question is, if we might say so, the very question that we ask
ourselves in regard to the space of the exhibition Les Immatériaux: What is the
new space that is constituted today through these invisible networks? Dhagini
concluded his article by saying:

one thing is certain: once the system has changed, there is no point in
making directional and coherent analyses with the logic of this system
or with the logic of the project defined as that of modernity. On the
other hand, we will have to work patiently and at length so as to grasp
and to practice the characteristic logics of the systems in which we are

In a certain way this patience of which Daghini speaks is something that we as

designers of an exhibition must also practise, insofar as we cannot respond
too fast to the demand for a plan or for a project concerning this space of
immaterials. I remember that, having had to be away from the team for a few
months last autumn, I was overcome by a sort of anxiety, thinking that we
ought at least to make some indication as to the spatial layout, so as to satisfy
the demands of the project. This proposition was rejected unanimously by
the team almost without discussion, without any argument – fundamentally
rejected, as if the team understood that we could not get to the root of this
problem of postmodern space through a rapid, controlled spatial layout of
a plan for the exhibition. In his text, Virilio, for his part, extends Dhagini’s
question, or perhaps contributes an element of a response to him, you could
see it either way: what we are seeing, he says, is a paradoxical phenomenon
whereby the opacity of the construction materials is being reduced to nothing;
thus, Virilio reflects here more precisely on the very notion of exhibition
[exposition], since the title of his article is “The Overexposed City”. I would
be pleased if the exhibition Les Immatériaux could be called a surexhibition
[surexposition]. Virilio says:

With the emergence of portative structures, curtain walls made of light

and transparent materials (glass, plastics) are replacing the stone façade
at the same time that the tracing paper, acetate and plexiglas used in
project studies are replacing the opacity of paper.

On the other hand, with the screen interface (computers, television,

teleconferencing) the surface of inscription – until now devoid of depth
– comes into existence as “distance,” as a depth of field of a new rep-
resentation, a visibility without direct confrontation, without a face-
to-face, in which the old vis-à-vis of streets and avenues is effaced

6 Ibid.
56 30 Years after Les Immatériaux

and disappears. Thus, differences between positions blur, resulting in

unavoidable fusion and confusion.

And he emphasises what follows from this:

Deprived of objective limits, the architectonic element begins to drift, to

float in an electronic ether devoid of spatial dimensions yet inscribed in
the single temporality of an instantaneous diffusion.7

This I think speaks for itself, without any need for further comment from me.
Further on, he adds the following:

Solid substance no longer exists; instead, a limitless expanse is revealed

in the false perspective of the apparatuses’ luminous emission. Con-
structed space now occurs within an electronic topology, where the
framing of the point of view and the scanlines of numerical images give
new form to the practice of urban mapping. Replacing the old distinctions
between public and private and “habitation” and “circulation” is an over-
exposure in which the gap between “near” and “far” ceases to exist, in the
same way that the gap between “micro” and “macro” disappears through
electronic microscope scanning. 8

Virilio concludes this passage as follows:

The representation of the contemporary city is thus no longer determined

by a ceremonial opening of gates, by a ritual of processions and parades,
nor by a succession of streets and avenues. From now on, urban
architecture must deal with the advent of a “technological space-time.”
The access protocol of telematics replaces that of the doorway. The
revolving door is succeeded by “data banks,” by new rites of passage of
a technical culture masked by the immateriality of its components: its
networks, highway systems and diverse reticulations whose threads
are no longer woven into the space of a constructed fabric but into the
sequences of an imperceptible planning of time in which the interface
man/machine replaces the façades of buildings and the surfaces of
ground on which they stand.9

As for the surface, in the same text a little further on we find the following def-
inition: “Every surface is an interface between two milieus in which a constant
activity prevails, taking the form of an exchange between two substances
placed in contact with one another.”10

7 Paul Virilio, “Une ville surexposée”, Change International, no. 1 (December 1983), p.

19–22; “The Overexposed City”, trans. Astrid Hustvedt, in Zone 1–2 (New York: Urzone,
1986), p. 540–550: 544.
8 Ibid.
9 Ibid.
10 Ibid., p. 545.
After Six Months of Work... (1984) 57

With these few remarks we have, by way of urban sociology, an approach to

what is necessarily in question for us insofar as we confront the question of
the spatial layout of Les Immatériaux. It is very clear that the exhibition must
take upon itself or take up for itself this space-time, a space-time without
façade but with an interface, where surfaces are only interfaces – and Virilio
and Daghini show us the extent to which these interfaces are essential to the
new habitat.

The proposed model here is that of the conurbation, which the urbanised
know very well, and which is characteristic of the great inhabited zones, for
example, of the South Californian coast, which extends from the Mexican
border to the north of Santa Barbara. The conurbation is neither the city nor
the countryside; it excludes the opposition between downtown, city centre,
and periphery or suburb; it comprises habitat zones and uninhabited zones
– not only vague terrains within the city, as seen in the US and pretty much
everywhere, but also hilly regions in which one thinks for a moment that one
is in the countryside – deserted hills – when one is actually still in the city. This
region, which in itself destroys the oppositions corresponding to the division
between countryside and city and, at the limit, between nature and culture,
suggests the analogy of a nebula, in the astrophysical sense – a mass of dust,
a focus of energy forming matter, one that excludes the simple opposition
between interior scenes, like living rooms, and modes of circulation, like lines
of attraction bringing bodies together. This representation, which is that of
classical modernity, will undergo an entirely radical critique – firstly, of course,
with the theory of relativity, and then with the idea, the principle that matter is
energy, and that the opposition between body and lines of force, for example,
cannot be maintained. The same goes – or in any case this is an idea that
should be developed – concerning the metropolis that I am trying to describe.
There also the opposition between the stable – what I would call hardware
habitats [habitats matériels] – and modes of circulation – fluidities, like the
flow of vehicles, for example – disappears, since the habitats are ultimately
only the nodes of circulation of the message, of the electronic message, of
photonic messages and sonic messages, which themselves, moreover, are
now also transmitted electronically – and of course these messages are far
more elaborate than linguistic messages in general and affective messages,
which remain to be elaborated at the level of the cosmic or cosmological
metaphor I am trying to develop here. So these habitats are, as Virilio has
just said, far more interesting qua very complex interface than qua interiors
held within façades. This has already long been reflected, in particular, in the
Californian architecture that Frank Lloyd Wright and his school implanted in
this region. This is already nothing new, it is inscribed still under the sign of
the project of modernity, but nevertheless, the decision precisely no longer
to oppose material support [matériau] and ornament, to no longer con-
serve the opposition between inside and outside, but on the contrary, by
58 30 Years after Les Immatériaux

means of lighting and transparent surfaces, to place the interior outside and
the exterior inside, the profound reflection of shadow and light – all of this
already anticipated something that is attained not so much by means of a
materiological research but from the sole fact of the predominance of new
technologies in the habitat, in architecture and in urbanism. I would say that
certain large metropolises – above all if they are not limited in their expansion
by the structure of the modern city of yore, with its city centre, commercial,
administrative, political centre, and then the various patches of the suburbs
– this freedom which holds for the large Southern Californian metropolis
which I already referred to, can fundamentally be thought far more easily in
terms of the cosmic or cosmological model; but also in terms of a microcosmic
model, that of a field of elementary particles which form a content [matière],
which form a node at certain places of encounter, one which, moreover,
is extraordinarily difficult to localise precisely because of the relations of
uncertainty – that is to say that each time the observer tries to define the
places of encounter of these particles, it is displaced.

If now I take this barely sketched-out model and transport it to the case of the
exhibition, asking myself, therefore, what a postmodern exhibition cor-
responding to the metropolis or to the nebula of conurbation could be, then I
am indeed obliged – and this is what we have all concluded – we are obliged to
refuse the traditional dispositif of the gallery and the salon – that is to say, the
dispositif which opposes, for example, rooms and the corresponding corridors,
habitats and lines of circulation. To refuse the opposition between the central
point, the preeminent point of the exhibition and the periphery of the regions,
the most important zone, the most important room, and then the outlying
rooms, just as the opposition between a downtown metropolis and the
suburbs has disappeared. We must even question the relation between
entrance and exit by virtue of the same principle, since it is very difficult, in a
large nebula like that of South California, to say at what moment we have
entered the city or left it. And we must also call into question and probably
abandon the principle that there is a direction to the visit, that is to say that in
it there is a polarisation of space and of time which means that one either
goes toward the secret chamber of the temple where knowledge will be
completed, or one traverses all of the rooms by means of the mode of
circulation toward the exit, the exit being the end of the apprenticeship and
the accomplishment of the initiation. All of these spatiotemporal
arrangements, which are powerfully significant for the project of modernity,
and which organise the space of the gallery, must be reconsidered if we do not
want our exhibition Les Immatériaux to be contradictory and, I would say, in
contravention of the very name of immaterials and with the very project of
exposing some aspect of postmodernity. It must be not an exhibition
[exposition], but a surexhibition [surexposition], to take up the term Virilio uses
in relation to the city; it must be an overexposed exhibition. So these are a few
After Six Months of Work... (1984) 59

reflections on the spatiotemporal problematic that has preoccupied us, and

which will have to be reconciled with a certain number of constraints, because
we are not putting on this exhibition on virgin soil, within an untouched
space-time. The fifth floor of the Centre is a surface of 4000 square metres,
2700 square metres of usable space if we discount the entrances and exits. It
is a space without any partitions, which is a great advantage; but more
importantly it is a space that cannot be made completely dark – this should be
emphasised insofar as it is precisely a question of that still modern but already
postmodern architecture of transparency, given that interior and exterior do
not constitute a pertinent opposition here. On the other hand, this space is
situated within the Centre Pompidou, in the very centre of Paris, a modern (I
would say classical-modern) city, in a neighbourhood which, especially since
the building of Les Halles, draws a crowd of visitors, particularly at the
weekend, a crowd of people who come from the suburbs; this structure and
this situation themselves constitute constraints. On the other hand, the
exhibition is not a museum; it is an organisation of space which is temporary,
not permanent; and we must include the duration of the exhibition – not only
the entire period of the exhibition, but the duration of the visit itself – within
the constraints bearing on the organisation of the fifth floor. I will leave aside
questions of budget, which everyone can easily imagine, not because I don’t
want to talk about them but because in the case of Les Immatériaux we might
think that what is new in the way the question of the budget is posed is that,
firstly, the budget will be higher than usual for exhibitions on the fifth floor,
because of the very nature of what will be presented – that is to say,
technologically complex machines; and on the other hand, that the evaluation
of cost is sometimes impossible insofar as we are dealing with the creation of
original products. I would add that the very term that designates this space on
the fifth floor, the very name of this space is the “Grande Galerie”. I am not
saying that these constraints make the thing impossible – far from it. On the
contrary, if we compare this relatively free space in relation to other spaces,
the exhibition can only benefit from being there. Nevertheless, the
Immatériaux project is rendered paradoxical by the fact of the central position
of the site – that is to say that it takes place in a centre, the Centre Georges
Pompidou, the establishment of which was indeed disputed at a time when
decentralisation was the order of the day; that the supervising body of the
exhibition is also a centre, the Centre de Création Industrielle (CCI), a centre of
creation indeed; and that, on the other hand, the thing – that is to say, the
exhibition – is rendered perilous by the fact that its philosophical nature,
which is in any case reflexive, and the team’s ambition as to what needs to be
got across to the visitor, is not exactly tailor-made to maximise footfall. That is
to say, the problem of the attendance of an exhibition that precisely will not be
made to teach, nor even to show something, since it will not be a façade, and
which is also not about marvels, in the sense that one might marvel at new
60 30 Years after Les Immatériaux

technologies, but whose aim, for the team in any case, is to question, and I
would even say to disquiet, the idea of the will and intelligence of an all-
powerful subject, in order to produce instead a sort of effect of modesty in the
anthropological atmosphere in which we live – the problem is that it effectively
risks ending up in failure. I think the whole team is perfectly aware of the risk
we are running in treating the question in the spirit that I have tried to
describe. This said, it is now time, not to specify the responses that we will try
to give, on one hand, to this questioning of the modern project, and on the
other, to the constraints of this space, but to sketch out certain responses that
have come up along the way during this very absorbing work, in which the
whole team is very much invested, because it is very disquieting – in any case,
some local responses. Here is how we have decided to proceed: we adopted
the communicational structure, and we decided to extend the sense of the
immaterial according to the root mât and to distribute the different senses
associated with this root, referent [matière], hardware [matériel], support
[matériau], matrix [matrice], maternity [maternité], on the different axes of this
communicational structure. With the use of the term “material” and the
mediative prefix, we are not suggesting that there is no longer any material
support [matériau], but we think that we are in agreement in questioning these
different senses: Is there still in contemporary technologies and in history a
place for something like a maternity, as if someone – nature, the world, God,
the Great Mother, were addressing messages to we humans, recipients of
these messages? Are there still media [matériaux] which are only media – that
is to say, relatively indifferent supports that are made use of according to an
independent project, like, for example, “brick architecture,” to use a term
borrowed from our colleague [Alain] Guiheux? Are there matrices, that is to say
codes which encode messages that we can decode? Is the hardware [matériels]
for the transit and capture of messages itself stable? Is the very content
[matière] of messages, that is to say their referent, that of which they speak,
independent of these messages? You can see that here there are a series of
questions which demand that we group the objects to be shown not into
separate domains – that is to say by genre, as one distinguishes biology from
cookery, painting, and industry – but on the contrary that we place these
objects, that we group them by zone. Each of these zones will fall under the
regime of a question of the type: What about the referent [matière]? In such
and such a domain, whether it is astrophysics, biology, architecture, what
about the support [matériau]? In such and such a domain, theatre, painting, or
industry, what about matrices, what about hardware [matériels]? Thus we have
been guided by this idea that what is pertinent are the zones corresponding to
different questions bearing on the different senses of the root mât. We have
been led already to this first implicit organisation, a prior organisation of the
space, which would be an organisation by zone, grouping sites belonging to
domains of different, heterogeneous genres, and whose homogeneity we will
After Six Months of Work... (1984) 61

demonstrate precisely through the simple fact that they will be interrogated in
the same manner, on the basis of the root mât. A second idea is that we do not
wish to have, and we cannot have, an overall view of the whole of this space.
This means not only that the visitor himself will have no overall view, and that
she will circulate immanently in this space, without being able to grasp, at
least not immediately, its overall economy; but that even we, who are sup-
posedly the designers or the creators of this space, we do not proceed via a
prior division of this space. That is to say that we will not plan out this
exhibition and then carry out the planned project, but rather set out from
these questions, interrogate the different domains on the basis of these
questions, and situate one by one each of the sites that seem necessary to us,
those that are most pertinent in relation to these questions, in which, in this
or that domain, the project of modernity may be disquieting in some way – on
the axis of referents [matières], on the axis of matrices [matrices], or on the
axis of maternities [maternités], and so on. And ultimately, in delaying the
moment when all of the sites, grouped by zones, will come to cover the fifth
floor of the Beaubourg. A third principle is that, if we want to be faithful to the
spirit of immateriality, it is important to accord a considerable place to that
which relates to time rather than that which relates to space; and that, in
particular, we must not – and we see many advantages in not doing this – we
must not issue the visitor with instructions, whether an instruction manual or
an instructive pamphlet, that is, information booklets. We should use as few
text panels as possible, since these are still of the order of inscription – as I
have explained before, the inscription of the space – and instead should use
the medium of speech, of sound, which belongs to the art of time. We have
taken the decision to use an audio programme to cover each of the zones
grouping together sites involved in different domains but belonging to the
same problematic. For each zone there will therefore be a transmitter, which
will be located in the space of the exhibition itself, and at the entrance each
visitor will pick up a little receiver that he will wear over his ears so that,
passing from one zone to another, the visitor will pass from one transmitter to
another, and will thus receive an audio instruction that will be sent to him by
the transmitter in question. Through the transmitter we plan to play a tape
recording relating to the problems that govern all of the sites placed within the
zone; in other words, the instruction will be oral, and this allows us to avoid
having too many panels to read. It will also allow us considerable latitude in
the nature of messages concerning the zones and the sites, because by using
oral speech we can avoid the monotony of written explanation, which
generally is of the order of instruction; we can envisage using citations, or
textual creations, from completely different genres. We can well imagine
poems, fragments of literary prose, instructions in the imperative mode,
questions, exclamations, all of this being – at least this is our plan – read by a
good, well-known reader, and thus making use of the specific power of speech.
62 30 Years after Les Immatériaux

Of course these same receivers could receive musical signals, whether these
signals are mixed with text, or whether on the contrary there is an entirely
musical zone, as IRCAM have suggested. Once more, the arts of time, oral
speech and music, with all the intermediaries between the two, including
noises, are much superior to reading. I would add that the interest of
proceeding in this way is that – the exhibition space must be kept completely
silent – each visitor will be isolated in a singular relation to the transmitters.
So, to come back to the sites, these sites will be placed in zones which are
transgeneric, trans-domain, these sites will be sometimes singular, sometimes
comparative – that is to say, comparing a new industrial technology, for
example, with a new artistic technology so that the visitors will be led to
question what is supposedly function and what is supposedly expression.
Others will be anamnesiac, that is to say that in the domain itself they will
compare two states, for example of the question of referent [matière] and
support [matériau].

And finally, the way in which the sites are linked to each other, as I have
said, will be through the common problematic of referent [matériel], sup-
port [matériau], and so on. And the way in which the zones that cover each
of these problematics will be linked to each other will remain – we are dis-
cussing this now – probably relatively loose, which leads us to think that the
perambulation within these zones will be at least partly free, so that each
visitor will have – I would not say the choice of route, the term “choice” is not
satisfactory – but in any case will have the freedom to go here and there, a
little according to chance, or his tastes or his momentary inclinations. It is not,
properly speaking, a question of a labyrinth, since usually a labyrinth has but
one thread, and is perfectly constraining. Instead it is a question – as we have
been saying in the team – of a sort of desert in the middle of which these sites
have been dropped, with the visitor going from one zone to another with her
headphones on her ears. Perhaps, entering into a zone in the middle of the
recording, she may wait until the tape goes back to the beginning in order to
be able to listen to what the space is about, the region where she is, and will
visit the zone in question with this recording, this text, playing in her ears.

Thus the linkage or the sequencing of zones to each other will, if possible,
always leave open the question “What happens, what is happening?” and
thus the feeling of a kind of contingency and encounter. I will add a last thing
as a general principle: since we cannot make the fifth floor entirely dark, as
is generally the case in the Beaubourg, we have decided to take the opposite
path – that is to say, to overexpose the whole exhibition, to use constant
halogen light and to control this light in relation to the external light so as to
balance it. Thus we will have constant lighting whatever the time of day, which
seems very important to me since it will be part of the extreme modernity or
postmodernity to renounce nature in this way, to renounce the seasons, day
After Six Months of Work... (1984) 63

and night. What is more, it will allow us, when we feel the need, to create sites
or even whole zones that, on the contrary, are completely dark, completely
black, through a system of local enclosures. So this is how, at the moment, we
imagine the whole of the exhibition.

I would like to add two things: on one hand, that we would like to find a
device that would enable us to record the route taken by each visitor. Not to
record it in some central server, but such that on the object that he will nec-
essarily have taken at the entrance – it may be a cassette containing all of the
recordings produced by the transmitters which the visitor could buy in some
way, or it could be a card that he swipes in readers – such that, thanks to these
indications one could obtain on demand, on exit, a report of the route that
the visitor in question has taken through the space of this exhibition. This
doesn’t seem to be as easy as we had thought, and the difficulties may oblige
us to choose a simpler solution, but nevertheless this aspect is being looked
into. This means that each visitor will in a certain way take away the product
of his own visit, printing it out using a printer at the exit. A second thing that
I would like to emphasise again is that, along with this route, the work that
you see here is not exactly a promenade but an investigation – I wouldn’t say
an adventure, I don’t like that word so much – but in any case an exploration
of the space of the exhibition. We also envisage completely revising the
idea of the catalogue, because the catalogue of an exhibition is a book that
has the exhibition as its content [matière], that is to say as its referent, and
which tries to be as complete a summary of it as possible, in the form of, on
one hand, a declaration of intent in the preliminary articles, in particular the
commissioner’s statement, and then an account of all the objects to be found
in the exhibition, the index of these objects and their authors or creators.
We should like to proceed in the following way: firstly, to separate it into two
book-objects. On one hand we will have as the catalogue a portfolio, which
was already started six months ago, the first proof of which some of you have
already seen – so we will continue with this portfolio, in which we will include
the team’s working texts spanning almost two years; and on the other hand,
obviously, an account of all the objects, whatever their nature, to be shown
[exposé] or overexposed [surexposé]. It will be quite a large portfolio, then,
one that will comprise a set of sheets along with two booklets, a booklet of
working files and a booklet that will be a kind of lexicon of the exhibition, with
illustrations, all of it in a cardboard sleeve like a box, a double box. You should
realise that this is not a matter of making something nice and chic – we are not
working on the model of a deluxe book. On the contrary the aim is to make an
object that is quite plain, quite simple, with these loose-leaf sheets, and using
printing and duplication techniques that do not go beyond offset printing. So
that is one of two objects that you will be able to buy in the exhibition.
64 30 Years after Les Immatériaux

The other object is entirely different: it is a part of the exhibition itself, one of
the experiments that are going to take place inside the exhibition. It would be
wrong to call it a catalogue, in fact. It is a question of giving a certain number
of people, whom I have somewhat derisively called “authors”, a list of a certain
number of words. These are words that we might consider as keys insofar as
they will be inserted into a central server, but they are not keywords in the
strict philosophical sense, if I might say so, but words that we have built up
together and which we consider to be important in relation to the exhibition.
So we have given these authors, for a period that remains to be determined
– this is a matter of both material possibility and cost – word-processing
machines. Each of them associates with the words that interest them around a
hundred words, a few phrases which we call commentaries. They make a first
commentary entirely freely – they are at home with their machine – and then,
by calling up the names of the other authors using a code, they can learn what
the others have associated with the same word, and then respond to what the
others have done. So in the first place their own commentary, then a com-
mentary which they can make on their own commentary, and then, thirdly, a
commentary on the others’ commentaries – all of this recorded in the memory
of a central server. You can see that there is no necessity for the process to be
synchronous, that is to say to take place in real time. These commentaries can
very well be made diachronically, one after the other, it does not matter much;
each can see the commentary of others when he wishes, in whatever medium.
But in real time, one can imagine – even if it seems that here also there are
considerable difficulties – the different authors responding to one another on
their word-processing machines. The company that is responsible for dealing
with this aspect of the exhibition has suggested that we could bring about –
and as you can imagine, nothing would please me more – what we could call
“sparring commentaries”, not using word-processing machines, but via Minitel,
the little device that is already in place in Paris, and which will be available for
all of telephone users in 1985, which is a device with a keyboard and a screen
using the telephone network. It may be possible, then, to make in this way a
sort of sparring of commentaries where each author will be able to produce a
phrase and any one of the others will be able to comment on this phrase – it
is a question of a brief phrase that fits in one page on the screen. In that case
we would have a production in real time, which would not be so costly since it
would use the Minitel network. All of this would of course be available within
the exhibition, and we envision that the visitors themselves could participate
in this experiment as it carries on during the exhibition. This means that all
of the work done by the authors on the word processors could finally, after
having been printed, be produced as an experimental book in which it would
be precisely the question of the author that would be at issue – Who would
the author of this book be? – and in which the very multiplicity of the rules of
the game – the author commenting on himself, commenting on others – would
After Six Months of Work... (1984) 65

ultimately make the question of the book’s maternity particularly disquieting.

Of course, the question of the support [matériau] would, by virtue of this
simple fact, be posed with some force, since each of the authors working on
the word-processing machine would be in the keyboard-and-screen situation
that I described earlier. So there are a few different aspects to this. For now,
we don’t want to proceed with the description of the sites, although we could
maybe do so if you feel the need.

I should like to add a few disordered remarks. This spatial layout which is in
the process of taking shape will itself manifest, within the exhibition, many
of the principles that I have described a little abstractly: firstly, the passage
from one zone to another should be compared to the passage from one
reception zone to another when a driver drives across a large metropolis.
When you go from the Mexican border to Santa Barbara you have to retune
the radio because you change transmitter; speech and music fade out and
become noise, and you have to retune in order to find other speech, other
music, you join them in mid-flow, and they are independent of each other.
This nebulous aspect of which I spoke earlier, then, we hope to reproduce it
through this device. A second thing I also want to say is that the multiplicity
of routes through the exhibition – above all if we manage to resolve the
technical question of being able to record them at will at the exit – allows it to
transpire that, fundamentally, the exhibition contains many possible worlds.
Ultimately, a route defines a world, that is to say that it connects up a series
of zones, and another route assembles the series of zones into another order;
and in this sense, each visitor will have a universe of the exhibition which is
inscribed, of which he is the author, but the involuntary author – and of which
he is also, one might say, the receiver, meaning that here there is a vacillation
on the question of sender and receiver, and above all on the question of
content [matière] – because it means that the very content of the exhibition,
the exhibition qua referent of a route is posited: there are ultimately many
exhibitions in one, many possible exhibitions. A third point: we can imagine,
thanks to the recording, thanks to the freedom that the recording gives us,
some very interesting variations in the pragmatic situation of the visitor,
because she may sometimes be the receiver of the recording – someone
addresses her and this someone, what is more, may be a person out of a
painting, may be a piece of a machine, may be the site itself, or the zone, or
another zone – she may be the receiver, then. But she may also be placed in
the position of the sender, since, precisely, she herself plots her course, and in
this sense she is the author of the route, the sender of the sequence that will
be recorded at the end. She may herself be considered as a support [matériau]
insofar as she is placed in the situation of a trigger – Pierre Boulez envisaged a
scenario where, through a simple photoelectric cell system, the very passage
of a visitor would trigger a piece of electronic music – perhaps at the moment
when she passes into one place, she triggers off a camera to record her and
66 30 Years after Les Immatériaux

to represent her on a video screen elsewhere in the exhibition. Or again

she may be the recipient, in the sense that she is active in this or that site.
For example, we can imagine a site where we plan to use a set of synthetic
images – which unfortunately risks being extremely costly – where the visitor
could breathe onto a screen which represents the snow on a landscape, and
by blowing on the screen she would make the snow fall. Thus, the visitor can
play a great variety of roles within the structure of communication that serves
as the general operator. It seems to me that this corresponds precisely to the
satirical route taken by Diderot through Vernet’s sites.

Translated from the French by Robin Mackay.

This text is based on the transcript, in French, of a talk that Jean-François Lyotard gave in
spring 1984. The transcript exists in several, slightly different copies which are currently stored
in different places in the archives of the Centre Pompidou. Different authors therefore refer to
it with different document codes, depending on the copy that they used (No. 94033/666, PCA
1977001/129, Dossier 2009012). The most complete version that we could trace, and that was
used as the basis of this first translation into English, can be found at "1994033/666".
From Over-
to Sub-Exposure:
The Anamnesis of
Les Immatériaux

Antony Hudek

Although a number of late twentieth-century exhibitions have already been

hailed as “landmark exhibitions“, one major and highly innovative exhibition
has eluded the attention of scholars until recently: Les Immatériaux, co-
curated in 1985 for the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris by the philosopher
Jean-François Lyotard and the design historian and theorist Thierry Chaput.1
Among its many novel features was the fact that it was the first exhibition in
which a philosopher played a leading role, opening the door to many other
instances in which intellectuals would become ad hoc curators. 2

Instead of the standard sequence of white cubes, Lyotard and Chaput divided
the entire fifth floor of the Centre with large sheets of uncoloured metal mesh
hanging from the ceiling. Contrary to the neutral lighting of most exhibition
environments, Les Immatériaux offered a theatrical setting – the work of young

1 On the debate surrounding what constitutes a “landmark“ in exhibition history, see

Landmark Exhibitions: Contemporary Art Shows Since 1968, a conference held at Tate
Modern, London, on 10–11 October, 2008, and Teresa Gleadowe’s review of the con-
ference in Art Monthly, no. 321, November 2008, p. 34. On the composition of the
curatorial team of Les Immatériaux before Lyotard’s arrival, see “La Règle du jeu: Matéri-
aliser Les Immatériaux,“ in Élie Théofilakis (ed.), Modernes, et après? “Les Immatériaux“
(Paris: Editions Autrement, 1985), p. 15 et passim; on Thierry Chaput, see the biographical
sketch in John Thackara (ed.), Design After Modernism (London: Thames & Hudson, 1988),
p. 232.
2 Some of the best known are Bernard Stiegler’s Mémoires du futur (Paris: Bibliothèque
publique d’information, 1987), Jacques Derrida’s Mémoires d’aveugle (Paris: Musée du
Louvre, 1990), Jean Starobinski’s Largesse (Paris: Musée du Louvre, 1994), Julia Kris-
teva’s Vision capitales (Paris: Musée du Louvre, 1998), Paul Virilio’s Ce qui arrive (Paris:
Fondation Cartier, 2002), Bruno Latour’s Iconoclash and Making Things Public (Karlsruhe:
ZKM, 2002, 2005), and Jean-Luc Nancy’s Le Plaisir au dessin (Lyon: Musée des Beaux-Arts,
72 30 Years after Les Immatériaux

stage designer Françoise Michel – which played with stark contrasts between
spotlit exhibits and areas of near total darkness. 3 In Chaput’s words: “Decked
in demanding grey, illuminated by improbable lighting, with unpredictable
ideas allowed to hover, this hour, this day in this year, suspended, rigorously
ordered yet without system, ‘The Immaterials’ exhibit themselves between
seeing, feeling and hearing.“4

Importantly, Les Immatériaux brought together a striking variety of objects,

ranging from the latest industrial robots and personal computers to
holograms, interactive sound installations, and 3D cinema, along with
paintings, photographs and sculptures (the latter ranging from an Ancient
Egyptian low-relief to works by Dan Graham, Joseph Kosuth and Giovanni
Anselmo). One reason for the heterogeneity of objects represented in Les
Immatériaux was that many of the exhibits were chosen by Chaput well before
Lyotard was invited to join the project in 1983. 5 Indeed, the Centre de Création
Industrielle (CCI) – the more “sociological“ entity devoted to architecture and
design within the Centre Pompidou, which initiated Les Immatériaux – had
been planning an exhibition on new industrial materials since at least 1982.6

Variously entitled Création et matériaux nouveaux, Matériau et création,

Matériaux nouveaux et création, and, in its last form, La matière dans tous ses
états, this exhibition, first scheduled to take place in 1984, already contained
many of the innovative features that found their way into Les Immatériaux.7

3 See the undated and unsigned letter to Françoise Michel in the Centre Georges
Pompidou archives, box 94033/227. (Material from the Pompidou archives henceforth
cited as PCA followed by the box number.)
4 Thierry Chaput, “Entrée en matière“, Petit Journal, 28 March–15 July 1985, Paris, p. 1.
Although The Immaterials was the official English translation of Les Immatériaux, I use
the French phrase throughout in order to avoid translating matériau by material, which
in French could also be translated by matière. Matériau in fact covers both the English
matter and material. In what follows, all translations are mine unless otherwise noted.
5 Although the first documented contacts between the Centre de Création Industrielle
(CCI) and Lyotard took place in May 1983, the contract making official the latter’s
status as chief curator (commissaire général) is dated 29 September 1983. See the letter
from Paul Blanquart, then director of the CCI, to Lyotard, dated 28 May 1983 (PCA
1977001/129), and the contract signed by Jean Maheu, President of the Centre Pompidou,
dated 27 January 1984 (PCA 94033/668). (François Burkhardt succeeded Blanquart as
director of the CCI in July 1984. Both directors appear to have been very supportive of
Les Immatériaux.)
6 An article from Le Monde found in the Centre Pompidou archives (in the box labelled
“Immatériaux Archi-peinture bas relief“) entitled “Les Verres métalliques matériaux
d’avenir“, dated 29 April 1981, suggests that discussions about the future exhibition
began in 1981.
7 See “La Matière dans tous ses états (titre provisoire)“ (PCA 94033/237). At the first
working meeting between members of CCI and Lyotard, the latter argued against
“creation“ in the title, deeming it a “theological concept“. By 10 August 1983, Les
Immatériaux, followed by “provisional title”, appeared on the cover of the first project
report authored by Lyotard. In November 1984, Lyotard and Chaput requested that the
exhibition title be registered as a trademark.
From Over- to Sub-Exposure 73

These features included an emphasis on language as matter; the immateriality

of advanced technological materials (from textiles to plastics and holography);
exhibits devoted to recent technological developments in food, architecture,
music and video; and, crucially, an experimental catalogue produced solely
by computer in (almost) real time. The earlier versions of the exhibition also
involved many of the future protagonists of Les Immatériaux, such as Jean-
Louis Boissier (among several other faculty members of Université Paris VIII,
where Lyotard was teaching at the time) and Eve Ritscher (a London-based
consultant on holography). Furthermore, Les Immatériaux benefited from
projects pursued concurrently by other groups within the Pompidou, which
joined Lyotard’s and Chaput’s project when it was discovered that their
themes overlapped. Thus, an exhibition project on music videos initiated by
the Musée National d’Art Moderne was incorporated into Les Immatériaux,
and another project on electro-acoustic music developed by IRCAM (Institut
de Recherche et de Coordination Acoustique/Musique) also seems to have
merged with the 1985 exhibition. 8

Although other institutions expressed interest in taking the show, Les

Immatériaux was too much a reflection of the unusual museographic practices
of the place from which it originated to translate into different contexts,
and the show did not tour.9 For Les Immatériaux was much more than an
“exhibition“, simply understood. It drew upon all the entities within the Centre
Pompidou, offering musical performances (including the world premiere of
Karlheinz Stockhausen’s Kathinkas Gesang); an impressive film programme
(entitled Ciné-Immatériaux, curated by Claudine Eizykman and Guy Fihman);
a three-day seminar on the relationship between architecture, science and
philosophy; as well as three related publications, in addition to the two
exhibition catalogues.10 Indeed Les Immatériaux would be among the last
exhibitions at the Centre Pompidou to embody the latter’s original ambition

8 See the “Projet d’exposition”, dated 10 January 1983, and the “Compte-rendu de la
réunion du 16 Mai 1983” (PCA 1977001/129 and 94033/236).
9 There were plans to tour parts of Les Immatériaux to Austria (Vienna), Brazil (Rio de
Janeiro), Japan (Tsukuba), and France (Marseille), though none came to fruition. See doc-
uments in PCA 94033/667, 1977001/130, 94033/0234, 1977001/130, respectively.
10 Aside from IRCAM and Musée National d’Art Moderne, Les Immatériaux incorporated
projects initiated and organized by the BPI (Bibliothèque Publique d’Information),
also located in the Centre Pompidou building. A slightly edited version of the film
programme that accompanied Les Immatériaux is accessible online at http://www. The three publications
are “1984” et les présents de l’univers informationnel (Paris: Centre Georges Pompidou/
Centre de Création Industrielle, 1985); Modernes et après: Les Immatériaux (Paris: Editions
Autrement, 1985); and a special issue of Traverses, no. 35, September 1985. Another
element was to be a video conference via satellite between sites in Tsukuba, Montreal,
Milan, Berlin and San Diego (see the document dated 14 June 1984, PCA 94033/0234).
This last project was finally abandoned for budgetary reasons. (Letter from Marc Girard
to François Burkhardt, dated 20 September 1984 [PCA 1977001/130].)
74 30 Years after Les Immatériaux

to be a centre open to all forms of expression, from industrial design and

urbanism to painting and performance, instead of a modernist museum based
on the neat differentiation between departments according to media.11 Les
Immatériaux represented, as it were, a hinge in the Centre Pompidou’s his-
tory, between a more conventional future (the CCI effectively dissolved a few
years later, merging with the Musée National d’Art Moderne) and a certain
postmodern idealism that tolerated, even encouraged, the blurring of dis-
ciplines and exhibitions with an element of pathos and drama.12 As Chaput
expressed it in 1985, Les Immatériaux represented “one of the last ‘romantic’

As the originator of the exhibition, and its main representative within the
Centre Pompidou, Chaput played a key role, though he was understandably
the less visible of the two co-curators vis-à-vis the public, and especially the
media.14 Bernard Blistène was responsible for the selection of most art works
in Les Immatériaux; most, but not all: the Egyptian low-relief was Lyotard’s
personal choice, and we can assume that he was also responsible for the
inclusion of Marcel Duchamp, Daniel Buren and Jacques Monory, since he
had written extensively on the three artists prior to his involvement in Les
Immatériaux.15 As for Lyotard himself, he was instrumental not only in securing
certain loans and the participation of prominent figures in the exhibition cata-
logues, but also in designing the exhibition’s overarching linguistic structure.
As early as spring 1984 Lyotard had suggested the conflation between five
French words deriving from the Indo-European root mât (to make by hand, to
measure, to build) and the communication model first developed by Harold
Lasswell – “Who / Says What / In Which Channel / To Whom / With What
Effects?” – later translated into a communication diagram by Claude Shannon
and Norbert Wiener, which Roman Jakobson would apply to, and amend in
light of, linguistics. Lyotard’s conflation of these communication models with

11 Beaubourg: Les Dix Premières Années du Centre Georges Pompidou, 1977–1987 (Paris:
Beaux-arts magazine, 1987), p.10.
12 “Les Immatériaux … is a kind of dramaturgy of the era being born.“ (Press release
recorded on an audio cassette and distributed on 8 January 1985.) For an overview of the
history of the CCI, see François Barré and Bernadette Dufrêne, “Le CCI, du Musée des
Arts Décoratifs à Beaubourg“, Centre Pompidou, 30 ans d’histoire (Paris: Centre Georges
Pompidou, 2007), p. 86–91.
13 “La Règle du jeu: Matérialiser Les Immatériaux. Entretien avec l’équipe du C.C.I.”,
Modernes et après, p. 20.
14 Lyotard credits Chaput with the idea of the metallic mesh. See p. 10 of the undated “Con-
férence de Jean-François Lyotard” (PCA 1977001/130). In a letter dated January 1985 to
Dominique Bozo, then director of the Musée National d’Art Moderne, Lyotard defends
Chaput’s contribution to Les Immatériaux as “at least” on par with his own.
15 On Blistène’s role, see the letter from Jean-François Lyotard to Pierre Gaudibert, dated 3
September 1984 (PCA 94033/669).
From Over- to Sub-Exposure 75

the etymological group of mat- terms was hardly rigorous.16 What it proposed
was an epistemological short-circuit between heterogeneous discourses –
the one poetic, the other scientific – to establish the following equivalences:
matériau = support (medium), matériel = destinataire (to whom the message is
addressed), maternité = destinateur (the message’s emitter), matière = référent
(the referent), and matrice = code (the code) [Figure 1].

The drawings collected in the Album section of the exhibition catalogue

indicate that the layout of Les Immatériaux had reached a near-definitive
stage by September 1984. Once past the initial corridor, the visitor would
have to choose between one of five strands (or “valences“) leading through
the exhibition, each corresponding to one of the five mat- strands. Each mat-
strand would in turn incorporate a number of “zones“, with each zone unified
by a common soundtrack, audible through headphones distributed to each
visitor before entering the exhibition.17 (The soundtrack, selected by Lyotard’s
then collaborator and future partner Dolorès Rogozinski, and engineered by
the Pompidou technician Gérard Chiron, consisted of excerpts of literary and
philosophical texts by the likes of Maurice Blanchot and Samuel Beckett.)

Each zone subdivided into several “sites“: that is, variously sized installations
with more or less obvious reference to the mat- strand in which they were
included. For example, the Nu vain site designed by Martine Moinot – an active
figure in Lyotard’s support team at the Centre Pompidou – featured “twelve
asexual mannequins” with, at the back, “a screening of a passage from Joseph
Losey’s film Monsieur Klein alternating with a photo from a concentration
camp prisoner”.18 As the visitor entered this site – one of three in the first zone
of the “matériau“ strand – she or he would have heard the voice of the poet
and playwright Antonin Artaud (Pour en finir avec le jugement de Dieu, originally
intended as a radio broadcast in 1948) and Rogozinski (The Angel). Thus guided
– or, more accurately, misguided – through the exhibition’s obscurity by the
soundtrack, the isolated visitor of Les Immatériaux would drift from site to

16 At no point did Lyotard go beyond quoting “Laswell, Wiener, then Jakobson” when dis-
cussing the communication models informing Les Immatériaux. Not only does he not
provide any bibliographic references, he consistently misspells “Lasswell” with one “s”.
Moreover, Lyotard admitted in an interview that the common “mât ” root was essentially
fictional. (See Bernard Blistène, “A Conversation with Jean- François Lyotard” in
Giancarlo Politi and Helena Kontova (eds), Flash Art: Two Decades of History (Cambridge,
Mass.: MIT Press, 1990), p. 31.
17 Nathalie Heinich and Antonia Wunderlich cite 31 zones, the number indicated in Petit
Journal. See, respectively, “Un Évènement culturel,” in Christian Carrier (ed.), Les
Immatériaux (au Centre Georges Pompidou en 1985): Étude de l’évènement exposition et de
son public (Paris: Expo-Média, 1986), p.78, and Antonia Wunderlich: Der Philosoph im
Museum: Die Ausstellung Les Immatériaux von Jean-François Lyotard (Bielefeld: transcript,
2008), p.36. The English brochure of the exhibition entitled Route: Zones & Sites describes
26 zones, which is the number quoted by Francesca Gallo in Les Immatériaux: Un Percorso
di Jean-François Lyotard nell’arte contemporanea (Rome: Aracne, 2008), p. 62.
18 Petit Journal, p. 4.
76 30 Years after Les Immatériaux

site and strand to strand with, as only markers, the switch between voices,
indicating the passage from one zone to another.

If no two trajectories through Les Immatériaux could possibly be alike – given

the freedom the visitor had to choose her own sequence of sites and zones –
Lyotard and Chaput were careful to document the visitors’ drifting patterns,
devising a dense network of self-indexing nodes both inside and outside of
the exhibition. Each visitor to Les Immatériaux was to receive a magnetic card
with which to record the sites she went through: upon leaving the exhibition,
she should have been able to print a hard-copy record of the visit, though
this system of “mise en carte” does not seem to have been implemented.19
Another self-indexing node in Les Immatériaux – Les Variables Cachées in zone
12 (“matrice“ strand) – allowed visitors, by way of a computer terminal, to
provide answers to a set of questions, which contributed to statistical views
of the exhibition’s demographics projected on a screen in the same site. 20
Published in 1986, the exhaustive study of Les Immatériaux by the sociologist
Nathalie Heinich constituted another means of measuring and archiving the
visitors’ movements through, and reactions to, the exhibition. 21

The idea of constituting an archive of the communication generated by Les

Immatériaux, mediated analogically as well as digitally, also determined the
exhibition’s catalogues. Instead of the traditional single volume acting as an
anticipated record of the completed event, two publications were issued,
both of which reflected the processes underpinning Les Immatériaux. The
first is a folder with, on one side, “L’Inventaire“ – a sheaf of loose pages each
describing one of the exhibition’s 61 sites – and, on the other, a bound “Album“
of notes and sketches (most of these by Philippe Délis, the scenographer of Les
Immatériaux) documenting the exhibition’s development from La matière dans
tous ses états in 1984 to a snapshot of the installation, presumably taken in
early 1985. The second publication, entitled Epreuves d’écriture, is a softcover-
bound volume containing the records of a computer-mediated discussion
among 26 participants – including Daniel Buren, Michel Butor, Jacques Derrida
and Isabelle Stengers – of a set of 50 terms proposed by Lyotard. 22 Lyotard
held this second volume in high esteem: “It is probably a ‘book’ that elicits a

19 Although it features in Album (Paris, 1985, p. 27), and was announced in the doc-
umentation for the press conference on 8 January 1985 (PCA, box “1985 Expo ‘Les
Immatériaux’” ).
20 See the document “Les Variables Cachées: 55 Réponses pour la période du 22.02.85 au
28.02.85” (PCA 94033/229).
21 See Nathalie Heinich, “Enquête sur ‘Les Immatériaux’: projet 15 mai 1985” (PCA
1977001/130) and the published results in “Un évènement culturel,” p. 25–124.
22 For Epreuves d’écriture, each “author” (the quotation marks are Lyotard’s) was given an
Olivetti M20, connected to a central Olivetti M24 based at the Centre Pompidou, which
logged the participants’ contributions between September and December 1984. (See
Lyotard and Chaput, “La Raison des épreuves”, Epreuves d’écriture, Paris, 1985, p. 6–7.)
The technology that enabled the catalogues’ production was developed by SERPEA
From Over- to Sub-Exposure 77

kind of beauty, as it were, very different from what I was accustomed to. For
me it is a great book.“ 23

The Postmodern
With its self-reflexivity and auto-archiving impulse, Les Immatériaux could be
considered a self-remembering exhibition – to paraphrase exhibition historian
Reesa Greenberg – on the condition that we recognise this remembering
as paradoxical and essentially Duchampian. 24 For, to refer once again to the
metaphor of the hinge, Les Immatériaux seemed to pivot undecidedly between
a “sensibility“ looking backwards, so to speak, to an origin that never was –
embodied by the Egyptian low-relief sculpture and the pseudo-etymology of
the exhibition’s title – and another looking beyond, to a technoscientific future
always almost-here, that is, to a postmodernism always in need of exper-
imentation and hence infinitely deferred. In his writings on the postmodern,
Lyotard would often qualify this wavering as an “anamnesis“, a psychoanalytic
working-through (durcharbeiten) in the future anterior, “in order to formulate
the rules of what will have been done”. 25 What Duchamp scholar Thierry de
Duve writes of the feeling elicited by the appearance of Duchamp’s readymade
could well apply to Les Immatériaux: “the paradoxical sense of the future that a
deliberatively retrospective gaze opens up.“ 26

In fact, Lyotard was explicit in placing Les Immatériaux under the sign of
Duchamp. A site in zone 6 (in the “matériau“ or “medium“ strand) was
named Infra-mince, and featured various handwritten notes and sketches by
Duchamp related to the latter’s notion of “infra-thin“, as well as an excerpt
of Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past on the soundtrack. In zone 20
(“matière“ or “referent“ strand), a site entitled Odeur Peinte included two works
by Duchamp, the 1959 Torture-Morte and Belle Haleine, Eau de Voilette from 1921,
accompanied by a reading of a text by cultural theorist and curator Paul Virilio.
Duchamp, in other words, could be said to play the role of yet another dubious
postmodern “origin“, after the mât etymology and the Egyptian sculpture,
both for the Centre Pompidou and for Lyotard. Indeed, Lyotard’s first contact

(Société d’édition et de réalisation de presse écrite, audiovisuelle et télématique), a

private company directed by Alain Rey.
23 “Conférence de Jean-François Lyotard” (PCA 1977001/130), p. 19.
24 See Reesa Greenberg, “Remembering Exhibitions: From Point to Line to Web” in Tate
Papers 12 (2009):
25 Jean-François Lyotard, “Réponse à la question: Qu’est-ce que le postmoderne?,” in Le
postmoderne expliqué aux enfants (Paris: Galilée, 1986), p. 31.
26 Thierry de Duve, Kant after Duchamp (Cambridge, Mass., and London: MIT Press, 1996),
p. 86. De Duve acknowledges Lyotard’s writings in the same book (p. 40, n. 15), while
Lyotard refers to de Duve’s writings on Duchamp in “Réponse à la question: Qu’est-ce
que le postmoderne?”, p. 20.
78 30 Years after Les Immatériaux

with the Pompidou took place in 1977, when he contributed to the catalogue of
its inaugural exhibition, devoted to Duchamp. 27

It is perhaps a symptom of both the transformation of the postmodern from

a term of historical classification into a more allegorical principle, and of an
increasing awareness of the value of exhibitions as performative sites for his-
torical reflection, that Les Immatériaux is now, after more than two decades,
entering philosophical and art-historical discourses. However, the main reason
for the long-standing exclusion of Les Immatériaux from these discourses was
undoubtedly Lyotard’s own reticence to discuss his 1985 curatorial project.
Shortly after his collaboration with the Pompidou came to an end, Lyotard
wrote of “looking forward to not having to think about (to suffer from)“ Les
Immatériaux again. He went on to describe his curatorial experience as having
prompted an “anamnesis“, and the exhibition itself as having “mastered us
much more than we mastered it”. 28

Why would Lyotard have judged his work on the exhibition in such traumatic
terms as “suffering“ and “mastery“? The fact that the public and critical
response to Les Immatériaux was mostly negative may have been a factor. 29
“Decked in demanding grey“, the exhibition was unlikely to have ever enjoyed
widespread popular appeal, but the “feeling of a period coming to an end
and the worried curiosity that awakens at the dawn of postmodernity“ –
emotions that the curators sought to evoke – was no doubt accentuated,
albeit unintentionally, by the numerous technical failures that plagued Les
Immatériaux. 30 The headsets – a prototype then being tested by Philips – were
particularly prone to breaking down, forcing the exhibition at one point to stay
open only part-time [Figure 3]. 31

The headsets were required, not optional, and came at a fee, which provoked
the ire of those wanting to see the exhibition without its soundtrack. 32 One

27 See Lyotard, “Etant Donnés: inventaire du dernier nu”, in Jean Clair (ed.), Abécédaire:
Approches critiques, L’Œuvre de Marcel Duchamp, vol. 3 (Paris: Centre Georges Pompidou,
1977). As Rajchman wrote in an early, unpaginated draft of his article “The Postmodern
Museum” (now in the Centre Pompidou archives), Les Immatériaux “may be the first
Duchampian museum.” (Cf. “The Postmodern Museum,” Art in America, vol. 73, no. 10,
October 1985, p. 110–117.)
28 Jean-François Lyotard, “D’un travail”, Les Immatériaux (Au Centre Georges Pompidou en
1985): Étude de l’événement exposition et de son public, p. 147–148.
29 Les Immatériaux does not seem to have attracted unusually large numbers of visitors,
despite its budget – the largest at the time for an exhibition at the Centre Pompidou. See
“Bilan simplifié de la manifestation Les Immatériaux and “Le point sur Les Immatériaux”
(respectively PCA 1977001/130 and 94033/667).
30 See the letter from the head of security of the Centre Pompidou, dated 28 March 1985,
who complains of the low visibility in the exhibition, making it difficult for visitors to find
the exit and the toilets (PCA 1977001/130).
31 Undated fax from Chaput to Havre Marine Systèmes (PCA 94033/227).
32 Daniel Birnbaum and Sven-Olov Wallenstein wrongly claim that the headsets were
“recommended”. See their “Thinking Philosophy, Spatially: Jean-François Lyotard’s Les
From Over- to Sub-Exposure 79

[Figure 3] Exhibition visitor, site Arôme simulé (Source: Centre Pompidou, MNAM, Bibliothèque
Kandinsky, photograph by Jean-Claude Planchet).

letter addressed by a visitor to the Pompidou complained that the exhibition

discriminated against the hearing-impaired. 33 Another particularly scathing
critique, penned by Michel Cournot in Le Monde, took the exhibition to task
for assaulting the visitor with incomprehensible stimuli, from the magazine
handed out before entering – impossible to read in the darkened exhibition
space – to the unidentified voices streaming through the headsets. 34

Lyotard’s rebuke to Cournot’s criticism, which also appeared in Le Monde,

defended the exhibition’s technological let-downs, arguing that such is the
price to pay for experimentation: “Mr Cournot wanted to revel in the jubilation
offered by the new mastery promised by the ‘technologists’, by the prophets
of a ‘postmodern’ break? The exhibition denies it, and this is precisely its
gambit – to not offer any reassurance, especially and above all by prophesying
a new dawn. To make us look at what is ‘déjà vu’, as Duchamp did with the
readymades, and to make us unlearn what is ‘familiar’ to us: these are instead
the exhibition’s concerns.” Lyotard went on to write: “The idea of progress
bequeathed by, among others, the Enlightenment, has faltered, and with it a

Immatériaux and the Philosophy of the Exhibition”, in Thinking Worlds: The Moscow Con-
ference on Philosophy, Politics, and Art, Joseph Backstein, Daniel Birnbaum and Sven-Olov
Wallenstein (eds.) (Berlin: Sternberg Press, 2008), p. 142. To gauge the violence of the vis-
itors’ response to Les Immatériaux, see the exhibition’s comment book (PCA 1977001/130).
33 Letter from Marina Devillers, dated 29 April 1985 (PCA 1977001/130).
34 Michel Cournot, “Un ‘Magasin de curiosités’, naïf et macabre”, Le Monde, 12 April 1985, p.
80 30 Years after Les Immatériaux

triumphant humanism. Greatness of thought – Adorno’s for example (must I

spell his name out?) – is to endure the fright derived from such a withdrawal of
meaning, to bear witness to it, to attempt its anamnesis.” 35

Beyond its negative reception, I suggest that Les Immatériaux proved a

particularly difficult experience for Lyotard because it represented a failed
attempt at recasting “the postmodern“, an expression his book La Con-
dition postmoderne, first published in 1979, helped transform into one of the
more widely circulated theoretical catchphrases of 1980s. When asked why
he was invited to become chief curator of Les Immatériaux, Lyotard consis-
tently professed to have no clue. 36 Yet this slim 1979 volume, whose influence
extended to both sides of the Atlantic, must have played a major role in
Lyotard’s decision to lead an exhibition project devoted to “new materials“.

Of course, as Lyotard was the first to acknowledge, the problem was that La
Condition postmoderne could not assume the responsibility of having the final
say on “postmodernism“, given the context of its writing – a commission by the
state of Quebec for “a report on knowledge“. 37 As Lyotard scholar Niels Brügge
has remarked, if the renown of La Condition postmoderne weighed so heavily
on the philosopher’s subsequent writing, it was because the book itself is
ambivalent, describing the postmodern at once as modal and epochal – that is,
as a narrative framework in which certain functions come to the fore (such as
performativity and paralogy in language games), and as a historical moment
marking the decline of legitimating narratives (for example, of emancipation
and enlightenment). 38

After noting the absence of the postmodern in Le Différend – the book

published in 1983 which Lyotard was finishing when he embarked on Les
Immatériaux – Brügge writes that the “postmodern continued to haunt
Lyotard’s work“. 39 Brügge refers to an essay entitled “Note sur les sens de

35 Jean-François Lyotard, “Qui a peur des ‘Immatériaux’?”, p. 3, and 5 (PCA 94033/233). The
article appeared in Le Monde, 3 May 1985.
36 “Conférence de Jean-François Lyotard”, p. 1, and “Jean-François Lyotard discusses the
exhibition, the Immaterials, with Judy Annear and Robert Owen, Paris 28 March 1985”, p.
6 (PCA 94033/667).
37 Lyotard is forthright about the book’s modest pretensions, stating in its Introduction
that “the text that follows is a product of circumstances”. Jean-François Lyotard, La Con-
dition postmoderne: rapport sur le savoir (Paris: Minuit, 1979), p. 9.
38 Niels Brügge, “What about the Postmodern? The Concept of the Postmodern in the Work
of Lyotard”, Yale French Studies, no. 99, 2001, p. 80–82.
39 Brügge, “What about the Postmodern?”, p. 90. Brügge also acknowledges – uncon-
vincingly, to my mind – the presence of the postmodern in Le Différend insofar as the
postmodern is “claimed to be inscribed in the epochal context already referred to as
postmodern in The Postmodern Condition” (p. 89). Regarding Lyotard’s calendar overlap
between Le Différend and Les Immatériaux, it is worth noting that the entire schedule of
exhibitions for the fifth floor of the Centre Pompidou was reordered to suit his commit-
ment to finishing the book. See Blanquart’s “Note à Monsieur Maheu”, dated 7 June 1983
(PCA 94033/669).
From Over- to Sub-Exposure 81

‘post-’”, in which Lyotard states that “understood in this way, the ‘post-’
of ‘postmodern’ does not mean a movement of comeback, of flashback, of
feedback, that is, of repetition, but an ‘ana-’ process, an analytical process, a
process of anamnesis, of anagogy and anamorphosis, which works through
[élabore] an ‘initial forgetting’.” In this essay, Lyotard cites painting as a prime
example of postmodern anamnesis:

I mean that to properly understand the work of modern painters, say

from Manet to Duchamp or Barnett Newman, one should compare their
work to an anamnesis in the analytic sense. Just as the analysand tries to
work through [élaborer] her or his current problem by freely associating
apparently inconsistent elements with past situations, allowing her or
him to uncover hidden meanings in her/his life and behaviour, so we
can understand the work of Cézanne, Picasso, Delaunay, Kandinsky,
Klee, Mondrian, Malevich and finally Duchamp as a “perlaboration“
(durcharbeiten) undertaken by modernity on its own meaning.40

Les Immatériaux offered Lyotard the opportunity to work through the haunting
of La Condition postmoderne, the former providing him with a stage upon
which to perform the transition from an epochal or modal postmodern into
an allegorical or anamnesic one. Whereas La Condition postmoderne was sub-
titled “Report on Knowledge“, one of the subtitles suggested by Lyotard for Les
Immatériaux was “L’Esprit du temps“, which, to use the more common German
expression, translates as Zeitgeist.41 By suggesting this subtitle, Lyotard would
have been making a clear attempt to reclaim the postmodern from the version
of the term made fashionable by such exhibitions as the 1982 Zeitgeist, which
sought to include the latest expressionist forms of painting in a twentieth-
century avant-garde tradition. 42 In a 1985 interview with Blistène, Lyotard
accuses the supporters of a “return to painting“ of forgetting “everything
that people have been trying to do for over a century: they’ve lost all sense of
what’s fundamentally at stake in painting. There’s a vague return to a concern
with the enjoyment experienced by the viewer, they’ve abandoned the task of
the artist as it might have been perceived by a Cézanne, a Duchamp.”43

Lyotard’s own version of a postmodern Zeitgeist at the Centre Pompidou was

an affective hovering between the “post“ he had imprudently prognosticated

40 Lyotard, “Note sur les sens de ‘post-’”, Le Postmoderne expliqué aux enfants, p. 119.
41 In the end Les Immatériaux did not retain a subtitle. On the various attempts at finding
one, see page 2 of a document drafted by L’Agence Bélier, the marketing agency hired to
publicise the exhibition (PCA 1977001/130), and the unsigned and undated document in
the same box which lists another subtitle proposed by Lyotard: “Entre essor et déclin,
nos savoirs, nos pratiques, nos sensibilités” (“Between expansion and decline, our skills,
our customs, our sensibilities”).
42 Zeitgeist was curated by Christos Joachimides and Norman Rosenthal at the Martin-
Gropius-Bau in Berlin.
43 Blistène, “A Conversation with Jean-François Lyotard”, p. 131.
82 30 Years after Les Immatériaux

in 1979 and a lost modernism that could never again be brought back to life.
This paradoxical temporal stasis would provide the clearest sign, not of the
decline of the twentieth-century avant-garde as such, but of the end of the
possibility of recuperating it to justify an increasingly complex and progres-
sively dehumanised technoscientific environment. For Lyotard, the historical
break in the telling of twentieth-century history is marked – as it was for many
before him, particularly Adorno – by the mass murder of the Jews during the
Second World War:

Following Theodor Adorno, I have used the term “Auschwitz“ to indicate

the extent to which the stuff [matière] of recent Western history appears
inconsistent in light of the “modern“ project of emancipating humanity.
What kind of reflection is capable of “lifting“, in the sense of aufheben,
“Auschwitz“, by placing it in a general, empirical and even speculative
process directed towards universal emancipation? There is a kind of
sorrow [chagrin] in the Zeitgeist, which can express itself through reactive,
even reactionary attitudes, or through utopias, but not through an
orientation that would positively open a new perspective.44

It is striking to note the extent to which this element of “chagrin“ – “sorrow“
in English – particularly in its relation to “Auschwitz“, is overlooked in the (still
scant) literature on Les Immatériaux. 45 This is all the more remarkable given
that the word carries – in France at least – inescapable connotations of stalled
remembrance of World War Two, after Marcel Ophüls’s well-known doc-
umentary from 1969 Le Chagrin et la pitié (The Sorrow and the Pity), a film that
gives equal time to testimonies by former French resistants and collaborators.

Le Différend – which, as I mentioned, Lyotard was completing when he was

approached by the CCI to curate the exhibition – opens with the prediction
that in the next century “there will no longer be any books“, since there will
be no time to read and the aim of all communication will be to absorb “mes-
sages“ as efficiently as possible. Thus, like all books published at the end of the
twentieth century, Le Différend stands at the end of the line (“appartient … à
une fin de série“ ). 46 To oppose, or at least defer this dystopian outcome, Lyotard
theorises “the differend“, the irresolvable difference between heterogeneous
regimes of phrases. “The differend“ never allows one to conclude, as it takes
the interrogative form of Arrive-t-il? (“Will it occur?“ or “Is it coming?“), a
temporal indecision Lyotard extends to “Auschwitz“, an event he takes not only

44 Lyotard, “Note sur le sens de ‘post’”, Le Postmoderne expliqué aux enfants, p. 116–117.
45 Particularly as Auschwitz was brought up by Lyotard at the very first project meeting
for Les Immatériaux, on 23 June 1983, as an example of an historical “event” – see the
unsigned handwritten minutes (PCA 94033/232).
46 Jean-François Lyotard, Le Différend (Paris: Minuit 1983), p. 13–14.
From Over- to Sub-Exposure 83

as a historical break (as Adorno did, according to Lyotard), but as a linguistic

one (hence the use of quotation marks).47

As an exhibition rather than a book, and as a dramaturgy beginning with

images referencing the Shoah (through Losey’s “fictional“ cinematic account),
Les Immatériaux staged an experience of “sorrow“ meant to give rise to a pro-
foundly negative feeling – a feeling the visitor could not possibly have escaped
as she wandered through the dark maze of the Centre Pompidou, confronted
by the endless choices to determine a trajectory without any identifiable goal
in sight. As Lyotard put it, “The exhibition will have to take into consideration
this aspect of sorrow [chagrin] and this form of ‘continuation’ [poursuite] of
technoscientific development, this extraordinary responsibility of a hundred
years of contemporary or avant-garde art where all the big questions were
posed … There needs to be this aspect of sorrow and this aspect of jubilation
through productive questioning.“48

In Les Immatériaux this jubilation never arrives – as Lyotard reminded Cournot

in their heated exchange in Le Monde. Contaminated by doubt instilled from
the “pessimistic“ beginning of the exhibition, the visitor to Les Immatériaux
could never be certain that what should occur had, in fact, occurred, whether
jubilatory or not. “When you are near the end of the exhibition maybe there
is a sort of optimism, but my idea and that of the organising team was not
to be optimistic or pessimistic: the exhibition is neutral ground“, Lyotard
commented.49 Note the “maybe“, for it suggests a fundamental hesitation,
a circularity and endlessness that can be termed “neutral“, but that can just
as easily be understood as Lyotard’s indecision that after “Auschwitz“ – that
is, after coming to terms with the technosciences not as the enemy of art (as
per the Frankfurt School) but as complicit in an increasing complexification of
interaction at every level of human life – something might, indeed, occur. 50

As the visitor entered Les Immatériaux, she encountered the Ancient Egyptian
low-relief, depicting a goddess offering the sign of life to the kind Nectanebo
II. Looking at this sculpture in the exhibition’s antechamber – “irreplaceable
witness for us of what ‘we’ are in the process of finally losing”, wrote Lyotard
– the visitor would have heard, through the headset, the sound of human
breathing. 51 The visitor then proceeded through a long dark corridor, at the

47 “The ‘Auschwitz’ model would designate an ‘experience’ of language that puts a halt
to speculative discourse” (Le Différend, p. 132–133.). On the troubling implications of
quotation marks around “Auschwitz”, see Elisabeth de Fonteney, Une Toute autre histoire:
Questions à Jean-François Lyotard (Paris: Fayard, 2006), p. 81 et passim.
48 “Conférence de Jean-François Lyotard”, p. 9.
49 “Jean-François Lyotard discusses the exhibition,” p. 3.
50 On Lyotard and the Frankfurt School, see “Gespräch mit Jean-François Lyotard von Marie
Luise Syring und Clemens Härle,” p. 3 (PCA 94033/667).
51 For Lyotard’s description of the Egyptian sculpture, see his letter to Gaudibert quoted
84 30 Years after Les Immatériaux

end of which stood a large-scale mirror, which in turn led to a circular open-
plan space entitled Théâtre du non-corps, where she faced five boxes, one per
mat- strand coursing through the exhibition. Each box contained a miniature
theatre set inspired by Beckett’s plays, designed by Beckett’s stage designer
Jean-Claude Fall and by Gérard Didier. Antonia Wunderlich, in her important
monograph on Les Immatériaux, has convincingly argued that the sequence
formed by the Egyptian low-relief, the dark corridor, the mirror and the
circular amphitheatre-like space with the five miniature theatre sets would
have suggested to the visitor that the origin of the exhibition lay in the dis-
embodied, objective and self-reflexive gaze of modernity. 52 For Lyotard, it is
this gaze that allowed the goddess’s sign of life to be measured “like cattle“ by
the Nazi doctor pictured in the fragment of Losey’s film projected in the Nu
Vain site, and that the entire exhibition attempted to re-stage in the light – a
threatening, uncertain light – of technoscientific postmodernity. 53 At the other
end of Les Immatériaux, the visitor once again encountered the same Egyptian
low-relief, this time presented as an image cut up into vertical strips projected
onto a screen, as if to intimate that the mythical image would have to be
thoroughly transformed, spliced and reassembled before “we“ could begin to
re-imagine another founding gesture, another community.

It is tempting to assimilate this final blurred projection of a supposed common

cultural heritage to a sublimation of modernity into postmodernity, or to a
form of transcendence. Lyotard has stated that the sublime was very much
on his mind while working on Les Immatériaux, particularly as he was lecturing
on “the question of the sublime“ at the Université Paris VIII and publishing
widely on the subject at the time. 54 But while he was preoccupied by the sub-
lime, and would remain so long after Les Immatériaux, his declared area of
research in 1984 was “Philosophy and the new media [les nouveaux supports]
– postmodernity.” 55 One could argue that Lyotard sought with Les Immatériaux
to disassociate the postmodern from the sublime, if only by excluding those
artworks he had previously qualified as sublime, such as Barnett Newman’s
paintings, and by making multiple references to Duchamp, whose aesthetic,
Lyotard pointed out, “has nothing to do with the sublime“. 56 Rather than simply
produce an aesthetic experience illustrative of a sublime or technoscientific
future, the blur performed by Les Immatériaux might then allude to the space
of Masaccio’s frescoes and Cézanne’s late paintings of the Sainte-Victoire

52 Wunderlich, Der Philosoph im Museum, p. 107 et passim.

53 Lyotard, “Qui a peur des ‘Immatériaux’?”, p. 5.
54 See “Gespräch mit Jean-François Lyotard”, p. 4.
55 “Fiche de renseignements à produire à l’appui d’une demande d’autorisation de cumul
de fonctions”, filled in by Lyotard, dated 5 January 1984, in the Centre Pompidou
56 Blistène, “A Conversation with Jean-François Lyotard”, p. 129. For Lyotard’s reflections on
Newman’s sublime, see in particular “L’Instant Newman” in L’Inhumain: Causeries sur le
temps (Paris: Éditions Galilée, 1988), p. 89–99.
From Over- to Sub-Exposure 85

mountain, in which Lyotard recognised the deconstruction of representation

in order to intimate a sense of the inevitable decline that accompanies the
exhaustion of modernity’s claim to pure, total and objective reason. As
Lyotard wrote already in 1971, “This space [of Cézanne’s late paintings] is not
at all representational any more. Instead, it embodies the deconstruction
of the focal zone by the curved area in the periphery of the field of vision. It
no longer makes an over there visible d according to geometrical optics, but
manifests Mount Sainte-Victoire in the process, as it were, of making itself
visible.” 57

In short, the space embodied at Les Immatériaux is a dynamic one, itself based
on a pictorial one, a temporal experiment that makes manifest, at one remove,
the spatial experiment of the painter making manifest the object of her gaze
in the process of becoming visible. In the documents Lyotard and Chaput
prepared for the press, they defined Les Immatériaux not as an exhibition but
as a “mise en espace-temps“, a “non-exhibition“, a “manifestation“. By fore-
grounding this last expression, the two curators sought to “question the
traditional presentation of exhibitions, which are indebted to the salons of the
eighteenth century and to galleries“. 58

For Lyotard, one of the most successful “postmodern“ efforts to translate the
spatial experience of the exhibition into the temporal experience of a man-
ifestation was the philosopher and critic Denis Diderot’s reports on the Paris
Salons of the 1760s, which relied on narrative devices that played upon – or
deconstructed to endlessly reconstruct – painting’s power to elicit the sub-
lime. In Diderot’s report on the Salon of 1767, from which Lyotard quotes in
the preparatory documents for Les Immatériaux, the eighteenth-century critic
imagines himself wandering through a landscape modelled after a painting by
Joseph Vernet, in the company of a fictitious character (a priest) who claims
that painting could never possibly reproduce the sublime beauty of the land-
scape – which is, of course, based precisely on a Vernet painting. In this inter-
mingling of art and life, of realism and fiction, Lyotard sees Diderot performing
“a kind of rotation“ whereby the author “settles in a fictitious space rep-
resented by painting and from there defies all possible painting“. 59 This is how
the sublime could be said to re-enter Les Immatériaux, by way of a derivation

57 Jean-François Lyotard, Discourse, Figure, Antony Hudek and Mary Lydon (trans.)
(Minneapolis, London: University of Minnesota Press, 2010 [1971]), p. 197.
58 See the unpaginated press release for Les Immatériaux distributed before the press
conference on 8 January 1985 (PCA, box entitled “1985 expo ‘Les Immatériaux’” ), and the
second project description for Les Immatériaux dated April 1984 (PCA 1977001/130).
59 Jean-François Lyotard, unpublished document entitled “Après six mois de travail”, in this
volume, p. 52 (PCA 1977001/129).
86 30 Years after Les Immatériaux

from the illustration of the sublime (in the works of Newman, for example) to a
non-representational, second-degree sublime that comes to the fore in the act
of manifesting, or trying to manifest the sublime at work in painting.60

As opposed to the Enlightenment Bildungsroman and the modern city though

which the Baudelairian flâneur or Situationist chronicler recorded his first-
person impressions, Les Immatériaux refused to grant primacy to the sub-
ject’s all-powerful subjective eye. Had it aspired to showcase the sublime, Les
Immatériaux would have taken the form of the “blockbuster“ display (among
which, for example, one could cite Olafur Eliasson’s The Weather Project at Tate
Modern, London, in 2003). Instead, Lyotard’s and Chaput’s “manifestation“
was to the “large-scale retrospective what Joyce’s Ulysses is to the Odyssey”,
that is, a narrative attempt to make the process of exhibiting manifest.61
Between Ulysses and the Odyssey, the relation to a putative origin changes,
as does the flow of the narrative: chronological and sequential in the latter,
heterogeneous and non-linear in the former. In describing the effect sought
by Les Immatériaux, Lyotard frequently invoked Virilio’s notion of surexposition
(“overexposure“ or, equally, “overexhibition“), by which was meant the
transformation of cities into sprawling “conurbations“ where “the opacity of
construction materials is reduced to nothing“ and the architecture “begins to
drift, to float in an electronic ether devoid of spatial limits yet inscribed in the
singular temporality of an instantaneous broadcast“.62 What distinguishes this
sublime cyber-landscape from Lyotard’s and Chaput’s stagecraft is precisely
the exhibition’s opacity and depth – its “difficult“ greyness and theatrical
obscurity – which impeded the seamless mobility and translucency of Virilio’s
futuristic vision.63

The fact that the setting for this alternate vision of postmodernism was a
“manifestation“ is crucial, for it is through an exhibition conceived as an
immersive theatrical environment that the singularity of the modernist eye
could be transcended and, at the same time, that transcendence in general,
in the sense of Aufhebung, could be shown to be thoroughly unpredictable,
literally unforeseeable.64 And it is precisely this quality that undermines the
efforts of those seeking to discuss Les Immatériaux as a novel treatment of
the “exhibition medium“. Lyotard aimed to challenge Shannon and Wiener’s

60 This transition between the two sublimes is discussed by Willem van Reijen and Dick
Veerman in their conversation with Lyotard, “Les Lumières, le sublime”, in Les Cahiers de
philosophie, no. 5, 1988, p. 78.
61 Early project description of Les Immatériaux, p. 4 (PCA 92053/032).
62 Paul Virilio, “Une Ville surexposée”, Change International, no. 1, 1983, p. 20 (PCA
63 See the early project description of Les Immatériaux, p. 11–12. Lyotard contrasts Les
Immatériaux with Virilio’s surexposition in “Compte-rendu de la réunion du 19 décembre
1983” (PCA 94033/668).
64 Lyotard discusses “manifestation” in relation to Hegel’s Aufhebung in Discours, figure, p.
From Over- to Sub-Exposure 87

communication diagram, in which “medium“ – one possible translation of the

French “support“ – is the central term.65 Following Diderot’s allegorical fable,
Les Immatériaux does not perform a “deconstruction“ of an exhibition medium,
but rather draws attention to a specific “medium“ condition – that of painting –
through the specific “exhibitionary“ form of a heterogeneous “mise en espace-
temps“, in which competing discursive genres could be played out.66

As I have mentioned, it is likely that the inclusion in Les Immatériaux of

Duchamp, Monory and Buren can be attributed directly to Lyotard. By 1985
Lyotard had published essays on all three, and having noted the conspicuous
absence at the Pompidou of “painterly“ painters such as Newman – on which
Lyotard had also written – one can infer that what the three artists have in
common, in relation to Les Immatériaux, is their complex relationship to the
“medium“ of painting and its manifestation. In particular, including these
“painters“ would have allowed Lyotard to counter the Adornian thesis that the
technosciences had rendered the efforts of modernist avant-gardes obsolete,
and to present three case studies in which “painting“ defied the repeatedly
declared “end“ of its medium condition. This is not to argue that the covert
presence of “painting“ in Les Immatériaux constituted proof that postmodern
heterogeneity effectively challenged the divisions modernism had upheld
between art, science and popular culture. Rather, the incidental presence
of “painting“ in Les Immatériaux articulated one way in which the most
modernist medium could relinquish its material limits in order to manifest
the processes by which it makes seeing visible. How successful one judged
this demonstration to be would ultimately determine whether one found Les
Immatériaux to be a dramatisation of the sorrow prompted by the spectacle
of the decline of Enlightenment ideals or of the uncertain jubilation elicited by
the unfulfillable promise of the postmodern.

In contrast to Duchamp, Monory appeared in only one site, with a large

four-panel painting from 1973 entitled Explosion.67 On each of the panels was
the same “hyper-realist“ depiction of a commercial aeroplane exploding, the
image progressively fading from left to right as the image went from a vivid
blue-on-white in the first panel, to an almost white monochrome in the last.
In the first panel on the left, the artist copied the image from a photograph; in
the second, only the lower left-hand corner of the painting was painted “free
hand“, while the rest of the canvas was covered with light-sensitive emulsion

65 Gallo, Wunderlich and Birnbaum/Wallenstein all use the expression “exhibition medium”
in reference to Les Immatériaux (see, respectively, Les Immatériaux, p. 34, Der Philosoph,
p. 14 et passim, and “Thinking Philosophy”, p. 143–144).
66 For the expression “mise en espace-temps”, see the second published report on Les
Immatériaux (PCA 1977001/130).
67 Monory’s Explosion occupied the Peintre sans corps site in zone 9 of the “matériau” strand.
The soundtrack for this zone featured excerpts from texts by Maurice Blanchot, Octavio
Paz and Henri Michaux.
88 30 Years after Les Immatériaux

on which a slide of the same image was projected to produce a photographic

impression; the third and fourth canvases were entirely “photographic“, with
no trace of the artist’s hand. On the card in the exhibition catalogue cor-
responding to the site of Monory’s Explosion, Lyotard adds a cryptic note: “The
painter confronts the two ways. Catastrophe of painting?“ As Lyotard specified
on the back of the card – an excerpt from his book on Monory published a
year before Les Immatériaux – these two “ways“ are not to be understood as
“Cézanne contra Niépce”, that is, as different mediums, but rather as two
different times between which the painter oscillates: the time of capitalism
(measurable, accountable, predictable) and libidinal time (gratuitous, exces-
sive, incapable of foresight or memory).68

Thus, it is not painting in the era of generalised technoscience that suffers

the catastrophe of its own demise. Rather it is painting that provokes a
chronological catastrophe by cloaking itself in the dandy’s melancholic blue-
grey, and by stalling capitalism’s unshakeable positivism. As it was displayed in
Les Immatériaux, Monory’s painterly disappearing act functioned as a museo-
graphic relic, a tangible trace of two contradictory impulses: on the one hand,
the increasing discrepancy between the slowness of the painter’s hand and
the immediate act of recording mass-mediated “historical“ events; and on
the other, in its very disappearance, painting manifested its trans-medium
resilience: forced to abandon a “sublime of transcendence“, it now engaged
a “sublime of immanence“, as a way to expose a new kind of questionable,
technoscientific sublimity, one capable of testifying to the ever-expanding
limits of experience through verifiable and accountable facts.69 By placing a
painting on a wall, Monory allowed Lyotard to come the closest to a Salon-
inspired hanging. But this sublime was only skin deep, immanent, and the
clash between painting and the “mass media“ (in this case, photography) left
only a paradoxical quasi-monochrome in its wake. In the end, it is colour that
appears most apt at recording the catastrophe of the sublime’s “défaillance“,
its seizure or failure.70

Colour, in both Monory’s Explosion and in the overall scenography of Les

Immatériaux, underscored the distance covered since modernism’s “sublime of
transcendence“, and the essential witness function performed by the “sub-
lime of immanence“. According to Lyotard, Buren’s use of colour fulfils much
the same function as Monory’s – that of testifying to a foreclosed logic of
presentation, “in favour of the forbidden ‘colour’”.71 This last quote is from an

68 Jean-François Lyotard, “Economie libidinale du dandy”, in L’Assassinat de l’expérience par

la peinture, Monory (Paris: Le Castor astral 1984), p. 48.
69 Lyotard, “Esthétique sublime du tueur à gages”, in L’Assassinat de l’expérience par la
peinture, Monory, p. 152–154.
70 Lyotard, “Esthétique sublime du tueur à gages”, p. 143.
71 Jean-François Lyotard, Que peindre? Adami Arakawa Buren, vol.1 La Vue le Texte (Paris:
Editions de la Différence, 1987), p. 110.
From Over- to Sub-Exposure 89

essay Lyotard published on Buren in 1987, in which one cannot help but notice
a similarity between Lyotard’s descriptions of Buren’s work and those of Les
Immatériaux two years before: “For Buren, the support, the site, ideology, are
all the more noticeable as pragmatic operators when they go unnoticed, and
the same goes for their exhibition. It is not a question of educating, but rather
of refining the pragmatic tricks [ruses] that enable the works to be effective.
But then, for whom, if it goes unnoticed? What is the destination of this meta-
destined work? In any case, rather a sub-exposure (or sub-exhibition).“ 72

Buren’s significance for Les Immatériaux could easily be overlooked, as the

artist’s work did not appear at all on the fifth floor of the Centre Pompidou,
but only in the Epreuves d’écriture volume of the exhibition catalogues, whose
white monochrome cover would prove the ideal foil for Buren’s invisible
“sub-exposure/-exhibition“. In concealing the work of a painter known for
his seemingly endless variations on colour, Lyotard may have had in mind a
project Buren made in 1977 entitled Les Couleurs: Sculptures. Buren’s project,
produced for the Pompidou in its inaugural year, consisted in flags, bearing
his famous motif of alternating white and coloured vertical bands, flying from
Paris rooftops. The flags were to be seen from the Pompidou’s terrace, where
telescopes were available to help visitors locate the tiny, often scarcely visible
spots of coloured cloth on the horizon. In his account of Les Couleurs, Lyotard
lays particular stress on the difference between experiencing the project after
the fact, as documented through photography, and the actual effort of trying
to spot the flags across the cityscape. While Buren’s own photographic records
of Les Couleurs are, Lyotard writes, “monocular, linear, fixed, definitive“, the
process of scanning the horizon from the museum had the effect of producing
a “melodic curve“ capable of dispensing “rhythms“ that “disorganise and
organise vision“, revealing in the process “to what extent the art gaze [le regard
d’art] is subject to generally unconscious chronic conditions”.73 By removing
Buren’s trademark stripes from Les Immatériaux altogether, Lyotard was side-
stepping the medium-specific modernist distinction between Cézanne and
Niépce, focusing instead on the far more critical question of how to “visibly
expose what is not visible in the exhibition itself“.74

For Lyotard, this question was best posed by paradoxical artists such as
Duchamp, Monory and Buren, for whom “painting“ represents a philosophical
as well as phenomenological test – and for whom, moreover, the ultimate test
resides in “painting”’s colour. Just as for these “painters“ colour serves both to
reveal and to dissimulate their respective mediums – pigment in the service
of olfactory experience in Duchamp’s Torture-Morte and Eau de voilette, the
bleached canvas turned photographic support for Monory, and Buren’s elision

72 Lyotard, Que peindre?, p.108.

73 Ibid., p. 90, 103, and 110.
74 Ibid., p. 99.
90 30 Years after Les Immatériaux

of painting from the museum – so the ominous and uniform “demanding“ grey
of Les Immatériaux shrouded visitor and artwork alike in a disorienting and
unbound monochrome that simultaneously obscured the museum to better
expose it as a fundamentally unmanageable, complex temporal space sub-
ject to “unconscious chronic conditions“. As Françoise Coblence has argued,
the presence of colour in Lyotard’s work “remains insistent, as if coming
from a time that nothing, no postmodern condition, can erase and which the
insistence on anamnesis will bring back”. Coblence goes on to suggest that, for
Lyotard, the phônè of the human voice is to the silence hidden within language
what colour is to the invisibility immanent in “painting“.75

This equation between the immateriality of colour or human voice and

the essential, ineffable element of what constitutes an artwork seems to
lend credence to Lyotard’s and Chaput’s claim that Les Immatériaux “merely
presents to the eyes and ears some of the effects [of a new sensibility], as
would a work of art“.76 But to grant Les Immatériaux art-like status, a number of
operations of working-through, or anamnesis, must first be performed: of the
modern in the postmodern; of the pictorial or fictional field in the exhibition
space (as Diderot did in his report on the 1767 Salon); and of colour (or voice)
in the pictorial/fictional field (as manifested in Les Immatériaux, in particular,
through Duchamp, Monory and Buren). These permutations are what
destabilise any authorship the anthropocentric “I“ may have over a “work“ – be
it of art – and transform the singular subject into a participant in a collective

We may debate whether Les Immatériaux successfully dramatised these

reversals; whether, that is, Lyotard and Chaput managed, as Lyotard put it,
to “convert anxiety into joyfulness“ and “displace the tragic nature of writing
into humour“.78 Yet what is undeniable is that, true to Freud’s definition of
anamnesis as a first step in the analytic treatment, the working-through of
Les Immatériaux has only just begun – not in search of any definitive origin
or answer, but as a potentially endless chain of phrases in which Lyotard’s
commitment to an “initial forgetting“ at the Centre Pompidou in 1985 still pres-
sures us to take part.79

75 Françoise Coblence, “Les Peintres de Jean-François Lyotard”, in Corinne Enaudeau et al.

(eds), Les Transformateurs Lyotard (Paris: Sens & Tonka, 2008), p. 93, and 96.
76 Early published press release (PCA 1977001/130).
77 Jean-François Lyotard, “La Philosophie et la peinture à l’ère de leur expérimentation”,
in Anne Cazenave and Jean-François Lyotard (eds), L’Art des confins: Mélanges offerts à
Maurice de Gandillac (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1985), p. 468–469.
78 Jean-François Lyotard, “Post-scriptum”, Epreuves d’écriture, p. 262.
79 On an “initial forgetting” see Lyotard, “Note sur le sens de ‘post’”, in Le Postmoderne
expliqué aux enfants, p. 119. For a clinical definition of anamnesis, refer to Sigmund Freud,
“The Aetiology of Hysteria” (1896), in Standard Edition, James Strachey et al. (eds.), vol. III,
(London: Hogarth Press, 1962), p. 191–192.
From Over- to Sub-Exposure 91

This paper is a version of a talk given at the conference Landmark Exhibitions: Contemporary
Art Shows Since 1968, a collaboration between Tate Modern and Jan van Eyck Academie with
the Royal College of Art and The London Consortium, in October 2008. It appears here in a
slightly edited version of the text originally published in Tate Papers 12 (2009): http://www.tate. The paper also appeared in Flemish in De Witte Raaf, no.142,
November 2009. For theirs invaluable help, the author would like to thank Gilles Bion, Jean-
Philippe Bonilli, Monique Chardet, Jean Charlier, Gérard Chiron, Sara De Bondt, Henry Delangle,
Pauline Hudek, Sarah Wilson, and Antonia Wunderlich.
The Production of
Les Immatériaux

Jean-Louis Boissier

in conversation with Andreas Broeckmann

Andreas Broeckmann: Jean-Louis Boissier, you were involved in Les

Immatériaux both as an artist who was responsible for one of the
installations, Le Bus, and as a scientific advisor on electronic and digital
images. While the three main people involved in the project – Thierry
Chaput, Philippe Délis, and of course Jean-François Lyotard – are no
longer alive, several people who worked on Les Immatériaux, like yourself,
still keep their memories and personal archives. The published doc-
umentation of Les Immatériaux has remained, up until today, quite
incomplete, and there seems to have been no systematic documentation
of this important show. This facts stands in a strange contrast to the
unquestioned historical significance of the project – perhaps even more
so today, than 30 years ago? Do you think there was an awareness of the
importance of the show at the time?

Jean-Louis Boissier: Yes, absolutely. There was a clear sense of the cultural and
the philosophical importance of the exhibition, symbolised most clearly
in the presence of Jean-François Lyotard. Even then he was one of the
internationally most well-known philosophers, and Les Immatériaux was
identified as “Lyotard’s exhibition“.

Lyotard framed the exhibition with his texts and ideas, he reorganised
and renamed much of what was already there and integrated the
elements of the exhibition. In fact he provided the overall narrative for
the exhibition in his texts for the catalogue and the exhibition walls. He
himself said that his only, but very decisive scenographic, or dramaturgic
idea, was the use of the soundtrack played via headphones, so that
people would walk through the exhibition listenening to spoken texts,
94 30 Years after Les Immatériaux

different in the various zones of the exhibition space on the 5th floor of
the Centre Pompidou – so to speak, “listening to Lyotard“.

But it is important to recognise that the preparations for this exhibition

had already been underway since 1981, so more than two years before
Lyotard came onto the scene. For instance, the idea for arranging the
materials in different sites, organised not in a linear sequence but in
different parallel tracks, these conceptual ideas were already there when
Lyotard arrived.

An exhibition with the working title “Nouveaux materiaux et création“ had

first been conceived at the initiative of Jacques Mullender, director of the
Centre de Création Industrielle, CCI, in the early 1980s. Mullender was the
CCI’s director from 1976 to 1982, followed by Paul Blanquart from 1982 to
1984. The exhibition project was then decisively pushed forward under
the direction of François Burckhardt between 1984 and 1990.

The CCI and the Musée National d’Art Moderne (MNAM), were separate
departments of the Centre Pompidou at the time – they were fused only
in 1992 – and the CCI played a very interesting and important role before
the opening and during the first years of the Centre Pompidou. The CCI
had been founded by François Mathey and François Barré in 1969, and it
was integrated into the structure of the Centre Pompidou in 1972. Barré
later became the director of the Centre Pompidou, from 1993 to 1996. The
CCI was much closer to societal developments at the time than were the
other departments, the MNAM, the library, Bibliothèque Publique d’Infor-
mation, BPI, and the centre for sound and music research, IRCAM. After
Les Immatériaux, this changed, there were fewer exhibitions dedicated
to design and technology, and the quarterly review of the CCI, Traverses,
edited since 1975 by Jean Baudrillard and Michel de Certeau, Marc Le Bot,
Paul Virilio, etc., was discontinued in 1994.

In order to understand the origin of Les Immatériaux, it would be inter-

esting to look more closely at the politics and opinions in France in
general during those years, and those of the Centre Pompidou in
particular, because for instance the changes in the direction of the
departments also meant changes in the thematic emphasis that these
people placed.

AB: How were these processes related to Les Immatériaux?

JLB: Les Immatériaux was an initiative of the CCI, a project in which all other
departments of the Pompidou Center also had to participate, not least
for political reasons. In a sense, it was a bit of an alibi project, claiming
that, look, we can all work together. In retrospect, this exercise in interdis-
ciplinarity may, ironically, have been a factor for the consequent reversal
The Production of Les Immatériaux 95

[Figure 4] Exhibition view, site Auto-engendrement (Source: Centre Pompidou, MNAM, Bib-
liotèque Kandinsky).

to a greater separation of the departments, and the integration of the CCI

into the Museum in the mid-1990s. Les Immatériaux was probably the last
big exhibition of the CCI.

I don’t think that this reorientation happened because of Les

Immatériaux, but the project was the occasion on which the separation
happened. This was part of a broader development in cultural institutions
during those years, the tail end of changes that happened during the
Mitterand years in the 1980s.

AB: What was the situation with regard to the project when Lyotard arrived in
the winter of 1983/84?

JLB: The project had been initiated in 1981 and was lead by Thierry Chaput,
a curator and theoretician of design. Chaput and a team of several
people were researching and collecting materials for an exhibition on
the way in which new materials and new technologies were changing
the conditions of industrial and cultural production. The CCI had done
various exhibitions on new technologies, for instance on computers,
together with Atari in 1983. But here they wanted to combine everything:
architecture, biology, design, literature [Figure 4]. In 1982, they were yet
lacking a global idea, a guiding thought or concept, but the thematic field
that the exhibition was supposed to cover was more or less clear.
96 30 Years after Les Immatériaux

However, around the spring of 1983, the project was supposed to be

abandoned, because the directors of the Centre Pompidou and of the CCI
did not believe that it could be successfully realised. That’s when they had
the idea to call on an external curator. There were different names in the
discussion. One was that of the curator Frank Popper, who opened the
major exhibition “Electra“ dealing with the relation of art and electricity in
the twentieth century, at the end of 1983. I don’t know who then had the
idea of asking Lyotard, but the CCI was known at the time to be close to
contemporary philosophy, for example with Traverses.

AB: Lyotard was commissioned to write a treatment that would suggest a

thematic framework already in May 1983, which he delivered to the
CCI in a sketch (“Esquisse“) dated 10 August 1983. This is a document in
which he contested the three terms used in the original working title for
the exhibition, new (“nouveau“), materials (“matériaux“), and creation
(“création“), and instead proposed the title Les Immatériaux.

JLB: This is true. However, I believe that this text by Lyotard was largely based
on the visual and factual material that Thierry Chaput and the team of
the CCI had collected, hence also their reflections on the new conditions
of “materiality“. I know for a fact that Lyotard’s thoughts were directly
influenced by Chaput, who was concerned for Lyotard to know about
the contemporary technosciences. Lyotard reflected this, for instance,
in remarks made in his book The Postmodern Explained to Children (1986),
which contains a “Letter to Thomas Chaput“, the young child of Thierry
Chaput, in which Lyotard points out the technoscientific development and
its relationship with humanity. These were themes which were also part
of our discussions with Chaput at the time.

If you look at Chaput’s notes and sketches from 1982 and 1983, you can
see how many aspects of the exhibition project that then became Les
Immatériaux were already in place: the spatial structure, the sites, even
some of the themes and titles of the sites. Also, Philippe Délis had been
selected as the exhibition architect and scenographer before Lyotard
joined the project. As far as I know, nobody has really analysed in detail
how much of the exhibition was preconceived when Lyotard arrived, but I
think that one will find that many things were already there.

AB: How did you get involved in Les Immatériaux?

JLB: I had been in Paris since 1969/70, based at the Centre Universitaire Expér-
imental de Vincennes, a place that deliberately operated outside of the
norms of the French university system, with an art faculty that included
not only fine arts, music, etc., but also film and theatre.
The Production of Les Immatériaux 97

I had worked with Frank Popper, who was the director of the art depart-
ment in Vincennes, on the kinetic art exhibition, Lumière et Mouvement
(Paris, 1967), and participated in the exhibition Cinétisme Spectacle
Environnement, which we organised together in Grenoble in 1968. I did not
really keep working in this field of kinetic and cinematic art throughout
the 1970s, in the environment of Vincennes, which was seen as both
experimental and as home to leftist political groups. But it was sort of
an “agitprop“ context in which I developed, at the time – ideas for what
one would today call cinematic and non-linear installations which implied
interactive aspects and the participation of the viewer – and to give
another ideological meaning to the notion of interactivity, which originally
referred to “human-machine relations“.

In 1980, the school, which was also named “Université Paris-8“, moved
from Vincennes to Saint-Denis. We returned from the dogmatism of leftist
theory and Popper got interested again in the themes that had occupied
him in the 1960s. There was an invitation to Popper and us, his group at
Saint-Denis, by the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, together with
the national electricity company EDF, to create an exhibition. The budget
was one million Francs – a lot of money at the time. This project became
the exhibition Electra in 1983–1984, which I worked on as Popper’s assis-
tant, and as catalogue editor. It became a magnificent exhibition which
also the museum curators and many other collegues were involved in –
Edmond Couchot especially for the digital section, a first.

At one point in 1982, in a conversation at the museum with members of

the team, we discussed critically that Electra looked only at the effect
of electricity and electronics on art, not on the applied arts, design,
architecture, etc. We wanted to see whether this lack could be alleviated,
and in order to get advice, it seemed an obvious choice at this point to
turn to the CCI at the Centre Pompidou. I knew the people there and went
to speak with them about Electra. So I had a conversation with Thierry
Chaput, one of the CCI’s project leaders with a focus on design, and
during that conversation Chaput said that they were already preparing a
project on “new materials of creation“ (“nouveaux materiaux et création“).
During that conversation I found out about the project which was already
underway – perhaps Chaput had come to the CCI in order to work on this
project, I don’t know. Chaput was interested in my research background
and we immediately agreed that I would cooperate on the CCI’s exhibition
project. Chaput was looking for constitutive elements for his project
which, at that time, he already conceived as individual sites that would
make up the exhibition as a whole.

Amongst other things, I talked to Chaput about the medium of the

videodisc, which I had discovered through Michael Naimark’s interactive
98 30 Years after Les Immatériaux

video installation Aspen Moviemap. It had been shown in the influential

exhibition, Cartes et figures de la terre (1980) at the Centre Pompidou, a
large exhibition with a very good catalogue, about the important theme
of cartography, with historical, contemporary and also artistic items. This
exhibition was realised, by the CCI together with the BPI and the MNAM.
For me, this exhibition was important because it made the link between
art and informatics, which was also the theme of a working group that
we had had before in Vincennes, the Groupe Art et Informatique de
Vincennes (GAIV) and that included people like Hervé Huitric, Monique
Nass, Michel Bret and others; Margit Rosen has studied their activities in
the context of her research on the New Tendencies movement. I was not
part of this group, but I agreed to try to introduce digital technologies in
our art department, with regard to the concept of interactivity, a word
which did not really exist at the time.

I had the idea that I wanted to develop something that would be inter-
active, combining the technical possibilities of the videodisc with the
new ideas about production and distribution of film, the participation of
the viewer, etc. I told Chaput that I had projects with interactive video-
discs which I had developed, for instance, for a competition for videodisc
scenarios organised by the Chilean film curator Raul Ruiz for INA, the
Institut National de l’Audiovisuel, in 1982/83. Chaput liked my sugges-
tions and agreed to include such a cooperation with the course on visual
arts of Paris 8 and its specialisation, led by Edmont Couchot, on new
image technologies, in the CCI’s exhibition project on new materials. This
cooperation was formalised in a contract between our university and
the Centre Pompidou in April 1984, and eventually led to several projects
of digital images, interactive installations, and copy art, as well as the
project Le Bus, which was produced and financed for Les Immatériaux by
the Centre Pompidou. It was an expensive and laborious production that
I worked on with several of my students, and that I would not have been
able to do at the university alone.

After this initial encounter with Chaput, I went back to Frank Popper and
said that the Centre Pompidou was already working on an exhibition
about the new developments in design, so the plans for Electra remained
unchanged with their focus on art. But from that time on I worked in
parallel with Popper on Electra, and with Chaput on what would become
Les Immatériaux. I spent more time on Electra, but stayed in close contact
with Chaput and his team throughout the following years. For instance, as
part of our research for the exhibition I went with Chaput to the national
audio-visual festival Imagina at Monte Carlo in 1983, and to the Siggraph
computer graphics fair in the United States.
The Production of Les Immatériaux 99

[Figure 5] Philippe Délis: Drawing of audience behind gauze fabric, [no date] (Source: Centre
Pompidou, MNAM, Bibliothèque Kandinsky)

AB: How did you experience the cooperation with Lyotard?

JLB: I already knew Lyotard because we were in the same faculty at Paris 8,
though of course he was a generation older and an international star, so
we were not close.

Unlike at the university, I found him extremely open in the context of the
exhibition preparation at the CCI – very generous – he accepted almost
everything that was proposed. He was not there as a curator who would
select things, but rather as the intellectual who would connect and line
up the things that were already there. He did bring in the architect Peter
Eisenman, and some artworks by Moholy-Nagy, Monory – those were his
choices. But the more technical things – the robots, the smells – these had
been discovered by the CCI team. Lyotard would often intervene in the
discussion very affirmatively, for instance on clothing, saying, “ah, yes“
(“ah, oui“), or on the skin, “ah, yes“.

The core group were Jean-Francois Lyotard, Thierry Chaput and Philippe
Délis, and most things were decided between the three of them [Figure
5]. Lyotard, importantly, gave a theoretical and a literary dimension to
the project. He worked a lot on his own texts for the Inventaire and other
aspects of the project, as well as on the selection of texts used for the
soundtrack. In fact, texts were the most visible item presented on elec-
tronic screens: telematic novels, text and image cooperations through the
100 30 Years after Les Immatériaux

Minitel, generative poetry and literature. The major interactive writing

project, Épreuves d’écriture, was inspired by the British cybernetic artist
Roy Ascott, and in its final realisation strongly influenced by Lyotard.
But again, the idea for this project was already there, and Chaput had
already made the contact with the Olivetti company – the sponsor of
the computers – before Lyotard arrived. The idea to suspend the whole
exhibition from the ceiling no doubt came from Délis, and it was con-
firmed by Lyotard who liked the concept. Chaput, in contrast, brought in
the enormous knowledge of possible objects and things to do and show,
and all the contacts with researchers and cooperation partners.

There were many people working on the different projects for the
exhibition. We had students involved, and there were lots of other
research institutions involved with the CCI in similar ways. At that point
I was only the intermediary between my university’s research sector
and Chaput and his team. The cooperation process was organised at the
CCI by Chaput’s team of maybe 20 people. Lyotard regularly organised
seminars or working groups (“groupes de reflexion“), for instance with
Jean-Pierre Balpe from ALAMO (Atelier de Littérature Assistée par la
Mathématique et les Ordinateurs), the informatics branch of OULIPO, with
Paul Braffort and Jacques Roubaud, who spoke about generative text.
Lyotard organised these seminars not only to learn things, but also to get
an idea of what issues people were arguing and fighting about.

I was a member of one of these working groups, where I was considered

as someone who could speak about the new, digital modalities of the
image, but also about teletext and telematics, computer graphics and
copy art. There were several projects at Paris 8 which were of interest in
this context, and of course it then played a role that Lyotard was also on
the faculty of Paris 8 – the same faculty which also included philosophers
like Deleuze, Chatelet, Badiou, Rancière, and artists like Orlan. Another
colleague at Paris-8 was Jean-Paul Fargier, an artist and theoretician of
video and friend of Nam June Paik, who cooperated in Les Immatériaux on
aspects of video art and surveillance.

Lyotard was a “leader“ – some saw him as a “guru“ – who gave an image
and a face to a practice that was present, and that was drawn together
for the exhibition from different fields. The Centre Pompidou had decided
to make an exhibition with a philosopher as “commissaire“ – not really a
curator, but rather an “author“. He was able, in that situation, to pose the
problem that the exhibition wanted to address. And although Lyotard
mostly only confirmed the ideas for the planned exposition, in a political
sense he probably saved the exhibition. Lyotard was brought in as an
external expert – external not only to the Centre, but also external to the
profession of exhibition curators and organisers. One could speculate
The Production of Les Immatériaux 101

[Figure 6] Exhibition view, site Labyrinthe du langage (Source: Centre Pompidou, MNAM, Bib-
liothèque Kandinsky, photograph by Jean-Claude Planchet).

that, when the first phase of research and conceptualisation of the

exhibition didn’t really lead to concrete results, Lyotard was perhaps
installed in order to demonstrate that the CCI was not able itself to realise
such a complicated project.

Lyotard pushed the team of the CCI, which was used to produce a solid,
pedagogical, efficacious exhibition, so that they would make a “man-
ifestation“ which in itself would be “a work of art“. He really put it like
that – “une œuvre d’art“ – and used terms like “opera“, “dramaturgy“,
“scenography“, “constellation of poetic and literary image-objects“.
Lyotard’s philosophical approach meant a departure from established
models, towards a work of a radically new type in which texts played an
exceptionally big role, in titles, the signage, the printed materials, the
soundtrack. Les Immatériaux was considered an intellectual success, but
it was also seen as an exhibition that was difficult for the public. The
sensitivity of the visitors was tested in different ways – they were not only
addressed as viewers, but also as listeners and readers, who had to find
their own way through the maze of the exhibition.

AB: I would like to speak a bit more about the artistic program of Les
Immatériaux, which not only included “canonical avant-garde artists“,
but also some of the contemporary video installation artists like Dan
Graham, Thierry Kunzel, Catherine Ikam, and Maria Klonaris and Katerina
Thomadaki. At the time, holography was one of the exciting and enigmatic
new media technology, which was represented in Les Immatériaux through
102 30 Years after Les Immatériaux

works by Alexander, Stephen Benton, Doug Tyler, and Claudine Eizyckman

and Guy Fihman. And your own interactive installation, Le Bus, and your
collaboration with Liliane Terrier, Toutes les copies, as well as the inter-
active sound installation by Rolf Gehlhaar, were all by artists closely
connected to Paris, and with IRCAM, La Villette, and Paris 8 [Figure 17].
The semiotic aspects of Les Immatériaux were closely related to the dis-
cussions on signs and language which played an important role in the
1960s, connected with linguistics and the semiotic analysis of culture.
These discussions were reflected in the conceptual art of the 1960s and
‘70s, which were prominently represented in the exhibition with works
by Marcel Duchamp, Joseph Kosuth, Piero Manzoni, Yves Klein, Robert
Barry and Ian Wilson. My point here would be that the choice of works by
these artists was probably appropriate, but not very original: Their works
had been collected by the Paris museums and was readily available for
presentation; they were here as place-holders for a specific reflection on
signification, not so much as original works.

In general, I have the impression that the artistic program of the

exhibition avoided strongly speculative positions, and that the use of
artworks was not as independent works, but rather as objects tied up
into a theoretical argument. Similarly, it was not intended that one would
experience, for instance, the soundtrack as an independent and self-
contained piece, but always as part of an overall confrontation with the
sites in the exhibition. The artworks were woven into the texture of the
exhibition as part of the overall argument, even if they were there to
make the argument in a form that was explicitly not textual, but visceral,
whether visual, auditory, haptic or olfactory.

JLB: I think it is necessary that we are careful when we speak about the status
of these different elements of the exhibition. Some of the things that
you mention, Le Bus, or Toutes les copies, were not really considered as
artworks (“oeuvres“) at the time. The things that were considered as art-
works were mostly those which came from the MNAM, through its curator
Bernard Blistène. And some of the exhibition visitors would perceive
these works as artworks when they walked through the exhibition. But
in terms of the overall scenography, there are not really “works“ in the
exhibition, but “sites“, constellations, each of which had been realised not
by one author, but by several people.

It would probably be interesting to reconsider the list of exhibition

items and see which of the things that were in the show would today be
considered as artworks – this will definitely have changed for some of
them. At the time, this was not an issue; in fact the idea that some things
were different from others because they were artworks was rejected as
ideological [Figure 6].
The Production of Les Immatériaux 103

[Figure 7] Inventaire, site Romans à faire, recto (Source: Centre Pompidou, MNAM, Bibliothèque

In fact, I believe that Les Immatériaux was such a success because it was
not an art exhibition. It would be a bit excessive to call it a “philosophical
exhibition“, but it was its quality to make a more general proposal about
the current relationship between culture, science and technology. And it
provided not only a philosophical commentary, but a story, a scenario.
It helped many people to pass on to a different state, a different way of
thinking and working. For me personally, another exhibition that I curated
was also very important in this line – Machines à communiquer (1990), a
technoscientific exhibition about virtual reality and networks, which also
had an important artistic component. Networks had already been present
in Electra – for instance with works by Roy Ascott and Fred Forest – and
they definitely played an important role in the conceptualisation of Les

Another thing to remember is that there were a number of young artists

who are not easily recognisable as authors, yet who contributed to Les
Immatériaux various Minitel projects, online novels, etc. Their work, I
believe, played a very important role for the aesthetics of the exhibition,
especially because of their treatment of texts.

Let me give you some examples – and for the historical re-evaluation, we
must keep in mind that there is a difference between what is in the cata-
logue and what was actually on show. For instance, in the site Mémoirs
artificielles, there was a variety of screens which presented texts. The
site was organised by Frederic Develay for the BPI library and dealt with
104 30 Years after Les Immatériaux

the notion of telematics and telecommunication. I believe that when we

put together a list of the contemporary artists who were involved in Les
Immatériaux, we must include Frederic Develay, who was exploring new
forms of text, of reading and writing. He was also involved in the site
Champ et mouvement de la voix, in which several well-known French artists
participated, including Bernard Noël, Bernard Heidsieck, writers of con-
crete poetry, and Alain Longuet, who experimented with video and how
to couple it with the digital. The people who organised the site Romans
à faire – Jacques-Elie Chabert, Jean-Paul Martin, Camille Philibert and
Dominique Horvilleur – worked on the writing of novels using the Minitel
system; they produced silkscreen prints and were part of fanzine culture
[Figure 7]. Or think of Marc Denjean, who did, amongst other things, a
Minitel project for the site Séquences à moduler, realised in cooperation
with ENSCI (École Normal Supérieure de Création Industrielle) – at the
time a new, industry-oriented design school in Paris with which Chaput
had forged a cooperation. You will see that Denjean’s name crops up
several times in the Inventaire.

These are only some of the artists who are somewhat hidden from view
when you first look at Les Immatériaux, but who played an important role
for the connection of art and technology, both in the exhibition itself,
and in the time afterwards. Les Immatériaux brought together projects
and people, mainly but not only from Paris, who were already working in
this field, but it also catalysed the work that everybody was doing. And
many of these contacts existed before Lyotard joined the project – this
whole dimension of Les Immatériaux was somewhat beyond Lyotard’s

AB: If we look at the relationship between Les Immatériaux and the 1983
exhibition Electra, we notice that at least 14 of the twentieth-century
artists in Les Immatériaux had also appeared in Electra, two years before.
It seems that the choice of artists for Les Immatériaux was largely based
on work that was known and available in and around Paris in 1984/85.
The selection for the exhibition was partly based on a rather conservative
understanding of established positions in contemporary art, partly also
on the presence of artists in Paris, in order to be able to develop with
them new works, or adaptations of existing work.

An interesting case is that of the installation you and Liliane Terrier put
together for the site Toutes les copies, where the visitors were invited to
make such photocopies of objects or body parts themselves, assisted by
somebody from the exhibition team. Two years earlier, in Electra, you had
curated a section on Electro-photography which had presented works of
“copy art“ made with photocopying machines, and which was introduced,
in the catalogue, with an essay in which you also made reference to the
The Production of Les Immatériaux 105

[Figure 8] Exhibition visitor, site Labyrinthe du langage (Source: Centre Pompidou, MNAM, Bib-
liothèque Kandinsky, photograph by Jean-Claude Planchet).

seminal work of the educator Sonia Sheridan, based at the Art Institute of

JLB: You are right, several artists in Les Immateriaux were also part of Electra.
In retrospect, we can say that Electra was sort of an exploration for some
of the things which were then presented in Les Immateriaux. Because of
this connection, Les Immateriaux has also become a significant moment
for the history of electronic art, and part of the history of the digital – a
staging of its mythology of emergence. But at the time one did not speak
of “electronic art“, even though electronic and digital technologies were
having a significant impact in the arts – think especially of music where
this technical development had already been going on for two decades
at least, and did not pose a problem any more. Equally in literature –
through the work of, for instance, the ALAMO group, which was important
for Balpe and others – there was an awareness of the impact that the
new digital production and distribution media had on literature. And
people like Hervé Huitric, Monique Nass and Michel Bret were working on
computer graphics which, in their view, would save painting; and at the
same time they were working with the Renault factory on car designs.

These people were involved in the exhibition, yet at the time Les
Immatériaux was not considered an exhibition of electronic and digital art.
In Electra there was a clear division, marked by the influence of Edmont
Couchot, where there was something that can be called digital art, even if
the word did not exist then. But it took several years before this trend was
106 30 Years after Les Immatériaux

confirmed – for instance in the Artifices biennial, which I organised from

1990 to 1996.

Take, for instance, the exhibition Image calculé, which I organised together
with Chaput and Délis in 1988, at the Cité des Sciences et de l’Indus-
trie. This was not an art exhibition, but it contained many artworks, and
things made by artists. In the same year, 1988, we also organised the “art
show“ of Siggraph France. We can probably say that the notion of digital
art really appeared in that year. Only retrospectively one can say that Les
Immatériaux was one of the stations in this development – and a special
one, because here the respective works were not presented as digital art.

AB: You spoke about the development of the exhibition project before it
became Les Immatériaux. How did this trajectory continue after the
exhibition closed?

JLB: One aspect to mention in this context is that there were projects that
had been planned for Les Immatériaux but were not realised – Edmont
Couchot’s La Plume, for instance, required powerful computers that were
only available when the project was premiered in 1988 in the exhibition
at la Grand Halle de La Villette, which I organised together with Chaput.
Another very significant follow-up was Passages de l’image, curated by
Cathérine David, Raymond Bellour and Christine van Assche at the Centre
Pompidou in 1990. The installation that I realised for this exhibition, of a
high artistic level, was not strictly an artwork, but contained a selection
of scientific images and was intended to reveal the way in which con-
temporary art was affected by digital images.

From this contact arose the commission by the Centre Pompidou for the
experimental exhibition format of the Revue virtuelle, which I curated from
1991 until 1997, the year when the Centre Pompidou closed for renovations
for several years. Revue virtuelle was a permanent exhibition which
sought to show to the broader public how the digital was intervening in
all domains of contemporary society. This was a project initiated by the
MNAM – not an “art project” in the narrow sense, but one about con-
temporary aesthetics.

For me, Les Immatériaux was an exception to this trajectory, because it

did not have a narrow agenda – it wasn’t there to defend a particular
domain. The presence of Lyotard made this possible. Many of the other
exhibitions, until today, have a particular thematic or technical focus,
serving certain cliques. Les Immatériaux didn’t do that at all. That’s one of
the reasons why the exhibition has attained a somewhat mythical rep-
utation. It was diverse and departed in all sorts of different directions, yet
maintained a high level of quality.
The Production of Les Immatériaux 107

AB: Also for the audience?

JLB: I think it did, not least because there were so many screens in the
exhibition [Figure 8]. The Minitel, introduced in 1982, was already quite
present and artists and writers were working with it, but I believe that
what the general audience remembered from Les Immatériaux was the
appearance of digital communication through networks and screens.
This impression was strengthened, I believe, by the fact that they had
the headphones, for even if this was technically something different
than networked communication, the fact that everybody was wearing
the headphones on their heads, gave a very particular image. This is why
Lyotard insisted so much on this aspect – it was not only about the texts
that were transmitted, but it was also part of the whole scenography, the
performance of Les Immatériaux. The experience of the exhibition was
strongly determined by this interactive distribution of the texts through
the infrared emission in the different zones. People understood that this
was a metaphor for what would later happen with the web.

This conversation took place on 20 November 2014, at ENSAD, Paris.

The Bus of
Les Immatériaux

Jean-Louis Boissier

In what follows I describe how the interactive videodisc installation The Bus
was conceived and produced, and how it responded to the will to exper-
imentally inscribe technics at the crossroads of art and ethnography. This may
in turn help shed some light on the philosophical exhibition Les Immatériaux
within which it appeared.

The Installation
Within the labyrinth of Les Immatériaux, in the pervasive darkness, a vertical,
suspended vitrine presents an object which attracts our attention because
it is instantly recognisable. It is a model, at 1/10 scale, and very detailed, very
realist, of a Parisian bus [Figure 9]. But what draws our attention to it is that,
on the little video screens placed behind the windows, there unfolds a filmed
landscape which, illuminating the interior of this miniature bus with moving
light, places us unmistakeably, both perceptually and mentally, in the position
of a passenger. We see neighbourhoods, private homes, gardens, buildings,
working-class towns, wastelands, market gardens, the university, and always
the sky, and views into the distance. Perhaps without noticing it, in pulling
ourselves up and leaning in towards the object that offers this vision, we grab
hold of a familiar form, the stainless steel column of the same bus, at full size
this time. And above all, an object that offers itself up literally beneath our
fingers, an aluminium button accompanied by a sign saying “Press for the Next
Stop”. I press the button, and a message lights up in red: “Stop Requested”. A
few seconds pass, and the loud noise of the engine and the rumbling of the
road completely stop. The video landscape gives way to a series of photos
which, changing in rapid succession, transport us, straight ahead and thus
110 30 Years after Les Immatériaux

perpendicular to the route of the bus, towards a house, through a door, into a
room, and towards a person inside. In this way we will see a child at home and
at school, follow a heavy goods vehicle driver delivering cars, discover how a
gypsy woman dresses, watch a doctor’s consultation, see a retired man in his
worker’s garden, find out something about the work of a dental technician,
and so on. One hundred and twenty such portraits are available, each one
consisting of 12, 24, 48, or 96 photographs. The viewer is distanced from the
present time figured by the route of the bus, and follows the person instead,
follows her home, or to her garden, to her work, in all her movements. We
see personal objects, private and sentimental souvenirs. We feel a desire to
see, a desire for intimacy, sometimes following somebody all the way into the
bathroom, and very often into the family album. Each series of photographs
ends on a close-up of a face with a name overlaid onto it: Carmen, four and a
half years old; Madame B., gardener; Madame T., bookseller; Amar, streetsweeper;
Nathalie, 18 years old; a man, 91 years old; Alphonso, amateur boxer; Édouard,
nurse, etc. Pressing the button makes this name appear in a list that scrolls
along in place of the tracking shot. Choosing a name becomes a way to go back
to it. To get on the bus, one must go via a portrait.

At this stage of the description of the installation Le Bus, we are reminded of

an image that has become emblematic of Les Immatériaux: each visitor wears a
set of headphones, and is thus enclosed within a vocal space which ceaselessly
transmits the texts selected by Jean-François Lyotard for each place. This
particular place, this “site”, is called Visites simulées (Simulated Visits) [Figure
10]. We hear phrases by Paul Virilio, taken from Negative Horizon, including
this powerful aphorism: “What will we wait for when we no longer need to wait to
arrive? ”,1 a phrase that refers both to simulated events and to communication
in “real time“ – a term that would come to invade discourses beyond that of
technology – generalized tele-observation, simultaneity, and ubiquity.

In fact, the reference to Paul Virilio’s ideas is very much germane to our
particular project. I read Virilio, I listened to him, I cited him to my students.
As an architect and as a philosopher of technology, he anticipated the
observation and critical investigation of new digital technologies. We
worked in what he would soon designate as trans-apparence: “the sudden
commutation of the perceptible is ultimately only the general herald of a
generalized derealisation resulting from the new illumination of perceptual
reality“. 2 After the aerial photo-interpretation of the Great War, he revealed
how the illumination of the military theatre had become indirect, a matter

1 Paul Virilio, Negative Horizon (London: Continuum, 2005), p. 120.

2 Paul Virilio, Polar Inertia, trans. Patrick Camiller (London: Sage, 1999), p. 7.
The Bus of Les Immatériaux 111

[Figure 9] Jean-Louis Boissier: Le Bus, 1985, installation view, Les Immatériaux, site Visites
simulées (Source: Jean-Louis Boissier).

of interconnected cathode-ray screens. But in doing so he came to identify

“infographic technologies [which] will likewise force a readjustment of reality
and of its representations”. 3 In this respect he mentioned Tactical Mapping
System, a videodisc programme that history remembers under the name
Aspen Moviemap.

I must emphasize here that it was precisely the discovery of this videodisc,
within the vast and erudite exhibition Cartes et figures de la terre (Maps and
Figures of the Earth), 4 at the Centre Pompidou in 1980, that decisively opened
up a new horizon for me. Ten years before, in 1969–1970, I had conceived,
for GREC (Groupe de recherches et d’essais cinématographiques), a scenario
which worked on numerous parallel levels of the filmic story furnished by the
situation of a train passenger. The unfolding of the landscape, like a cinema
tracking-shot, drew the viewer into houses wherein were played, or spoken,
scenes borrowed from Madame Bovary, and then brought him back into the
train, to discover there a contemporary scene with a certain family resem-
blance to Flaubert’s text. Its title, Exercice de la découverte, affirmed the scopic
impulse stimulated by an opening in the scenery which, in the theatre, is
known as a découverte. Thus my intuition was that the interactivity of the
videodisc, its capacity to open onto bifurcating signifiers, the computational

3 Paul Virilio, Lost Dimension (New York: Semiotext(e), 1991), p. 26–27.

4 Catalogue: Jean-Loup Rivière (ed.), Cartes et figures de la terre (Paris: Centre Georges
Pompidou/CCI, 1980).
112 30 Years after Les Immatériaux

combination of text and image, presented the opportunity for an artistic

solution that ought to be seized.

At the beginning of the ‘80s, as a teacher and as an artist, I pursued a concep-

tual approach to shooting, making use of photography and cinema, but above
all of spatio-temporal protocols designed to challenge the doxa of creativity.
“Allez-y en Nikon [Go there in a Nikon]”, said a then-current advertising slogan,
accompanied by a shot of space exploration. The camera is a vehicle – as it
had been in the mid-nineteenth century for the photographic assignments of
railway companies, in the 1930s for the American photographers of the FSA ,
and in the ‘60s and ‘70s for conceptual artists. “Shooting“ refers to a succes-
sion of image-collections governed by a programme. In the videodisc this
process would take on a concrete form. We spoke of photography or video
“from the videodisc perspective“ to signify the feedback effect of the inter-
active support on operations which, up until then, had taken their lead from
printed books and the exhibition. Meanwhile, simultaneously, the idea came
about to design interactivity on the models of the map, the book, and the
exhibition. What I wanted to show was that, with videodiscs, and later with
interactive video programs, the computer is not only able to build realities
“out of nothing“, but to organize real elements and allow access to them.

In 1983, a competition was launched in Paris by two public institutions, the
Institut National de l’Audiovisuel and the Centre National d’Études des Télé-
communications, for “interactive scenarios for videodisc“ of a documentary
or fictional nature. This was meant to be innovative, since “no one (or almost
no one) has ever written one!” but it required entrants to establish “ques-
tions“ and “controls“ which were stereotyped from the outset. The scenario
that I proposed refused these parameters, and The Bus, which came about
at the same time, radicalised this attitude by making the interactive diagram
a constitutive part of a behaviour which itself was borrowed from the real –
captured, as one does when shooting.

Virilio’s warnings on the military nature of the initial videodisc impelled us to

substantially misappropriate the technology, even though we were attracted
by its novelty. Some years later, Gilles Deleuze would tell us that we needed to
“subvert“ control:

the screen’s no longer a window or a door (behind which…), nor a frame

or surface (within which…), but a computer screen on which images as
“data” slip around … Cinema ought to stop being ‘cinematic’, stop play-
acting, and set up specific relationships with video, with electronic and
The Bus of Les Immatériaux 113

[Figure 10] Inventaire, site Visites simulées, recto (Source: Centre Pompidou, MNAM, Bibliothèque
Kandinsky, photographs by Jean-Louis Boissier).

digital images, in order to develop a new form of resistance and combat

the televisual function of surveillance and control. 5

We have mentioned Gilles Deleuze, but not yet Jean-François Lyotard. Both
were professors in our arts and philosophy faculty at Université Paris 8, which
in 1980 moved from Vincennes to Saint-Denis. Le Bus was part of the project
for an exhibition at the Centre Pompidou, led by the Centre de Création Indus-
trielle (CCI), which was initiated in 1982. Working alongside Frank Popper (also
a Professor at Paris 8) on Electra, the historical exhibition concerning “elec-
tricity and electronics in twentieth-century art“ at the Musée d’Art Moderne in
Paris,6 I was responsible for establishing a relationship with the CCI for works
relating to design and architecture. I was then alerted to an exhibition that
was being planned, and was considered as complementary to Electra, entitled
Matériaux nouveaux et création (New Materials and Creation). The head of the
project at the CCI, Thierry Chaput, immediately invited me to contribute as a
researcher in art with my university. Unexpected means became available to
produce and exhibit our videodisc.

A videodisc can contain 54,000 images – analogue video images, but attached
to a digital code. Designing a programme for videodisc means imagining

5 Gilles Deleuze, “Letter to Serge Daney: Optimism, Pessimism, and Travel”, in Negotiations
1972–1990, trans. Martin Joughin (New York: Columbia University Press, 1995), p. 76.
6 Electra, Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, 10 December, 1983–5 February, 1984.
Directed by Frank Popper. Catalogue, 464 pages, French and English, designed by Jean-
Louis Boissier.
114 30 Years after Les Immatériaux

a logic of relational sequences. Cinema (video), the chronophotographic

sequence, the diaporama, are possible forms this might take. But our scenario
relates strictly to the still image. A fictive line is determined, in a zone of this
mixed suburb some distance from Paris, which contains the university. On
one hand, for eight months during 1984, fourteen local performers, including
twelve students, would go out “shooting“, identifying people, photographing
them according to a formal protocol, but in very varied circumstances, and
as amateurs. Many thousands of negatives were developed by the technical
service at the Centre Pompidou. The tracking shot of the journey itself, of five
minutes duration in either direction, was produced very professionally, with
the camera mounted on an arm substantially above any parked cars. I made
the chronophotographs describing the 120 descents from the bus myself,
in one day, as an exhibition curator might take care of the wires that attach
frames to a picture rail. Once the images were calibrated and the disk pressed,
a small company called Imedia, who did research for the Direction Générale
des Télecommunication, and were thus linked to the public sector, pro-
grammed the control of the piece, using completely new techniques, including
those for the overlaying of text in the screens.

Inclusion in the Exhibition

When, in the fall of 1983, Jean-François Lyotard became the commissioner,
naming it Les Immatériaux and, in an unprecedented operation, shifting its
emphasis toward philosophy, the exhibition in preparation – he preferred to
call it a “manifestation“ – would conserve its essential constitutive elements.
Lyotard’s approach would be to bring together many different players along
with their specialisms, to listen to them, to integrate them, and to allow them
a considerable freedom, because the concrete content, that which would
be exhibited, would ultimately come from them. Setting out from the rich
material thus identified, his conception of the exhibition would become more
dense and took shape rapidly. Conversely, he would sometimes produce
rather mundane illustrations.

If the exhibition is multiple, difficult to make out, then it succeeds in its

primary aim of showing the difficulty of communication, as opposed to a
certain modernist idea of “transparency”. This is a proposition for the trans-
formation of the exhibition genre itself. It refuses the model, “inherited from
the eighteenth century”, of the “story“ that one follows from room to room,
just as much as it refuses the alternative model (very much in vogue at the
time) of a spectacle-exhibition that would absorb the visitor. It takes a radically
unprecedented form: there are no picture rails, no partitions, but instead
frames, grilles, with everything suspended from the ceiling. It is a kind of
labyrinth, “a maze of situations organized by questions“ wherein one cannot
really go astray, but may very quickly get the feeling that one may never get
The Bus of Les Immatériaux 115

out. “The Garden of Forking Paths”, “The Library of Babel“ – references to

Borges are numerous in Lyotard’s project, and in the propositions of the
architect Philippe Délis. The space fabricated may be that of a nocturnal
garden, with lines of force, nooks and crannies, a few impasses and, in spit
of it all, some perspectives. In Les Immatériaux, the visitor firstly sees an
envelope, relations of closeness and depth, of interior and exterior, of trans-
parency and opacity, of abstraction and legibility. There is a plan, a concep-
tual and linguistic matrix, but there is no path traced out in advance – the
route must remain aleatory, and its plotting falls to each visitor. Sound, by
immersing visitors in an enigmatic textual universe, deliberately prevents
all communication between them: “Solitude is the price to be paid for com-
plexity”, as Lyotard says.

It has been suggested that Lyotard’s work was first of all, and very powerfully,
that of an editor. Le Bus, while it was being made, would find its place within
the axis “Content” (Matière). A content which does not refer outside of itself,
which is inexhaustible. This idea of a critical mass, associated with the
database, was for me at the time an essential aesthetic motivation.

It would find an echo in the very nature of Les Immatériaux. The notion of inter-
activity – a new notion which began to appear in dictionaries in 1980 – would
also be diffused throughout the exhibition. Being involved with the work of
Thierry Chaput and Philippe Délis, I followed the rising fortunes of this term,
which they made into a guiding principle. Lyotard accepted it and took it up
on his own account. For the exhibition sought to be neither encyclopaedic
nor artistic. It sought to be a “work of art“, a “constellation of images-objects,
poetic and literary“, an “opera“. It would thus have a dramaturgy that would be
explicitly designated as an “interactive dramaturgy”.7

What Happened Next

Le Bus would not have been made were it not for its inclusion in Les
Immatériaux, and it proved to fit in well with the global concept constructed by
Lyotard. The singular nature of the exhibition made possible works that had
no claim to belong to contemporary art, even if they contributed something to
it, whether in the field of image, text, sound, or – even more so – that of digital
media. In both its modest dimensions and its aesthetics, our videodisc was
significantly different from Aspen Moviemap, which demanded a great deal of
work on Michael Naimark’s part to draw out its artistic valence, including the
revelation of its hidden dimension of “micro-documentaries“ descended from

7 Jean-Louis Boissier, “La question des nouveaux medias numériques”, in Bernadette

Dufrêne (ed.), Centre Pompidou: 30 ans d’histoire (Paris: Editions du Centre Pompidou,
2007), p. 374–391.
116 30 Years after Les Immatériaux

cinéma verité, under the influence of Richard Leacock. 8 Incidentally, Michael

Naimark would be involved in 1985 in a prototype ordered by the Paris metro
company RATP, which in the end was never taken forward.

In parallel with the design and realisation of Le Bus, during 1983–1985,

and under the influence of this process, with the help of researchers and
technicians at Paris 8, I made several videodisc essays: a walk on the north-
south axis of Beijing in April 1983; a herbarium after Jean-Jacques Rous-
seau in 1984–1985; and, above all, Pékin pour mémoire (Peking for the Record),
an installation presented as an artwork, reproducing the performance of
shooting around Beijing in 1985, according to a geometrical itinerary and a
fixed temporality. It would be shown at the 1986 Venice Biennial, but under
an “Arts and Science“ banner, in the section “Technology and Information“
directed by Roy Ascott.

In 1988 I used the formula “dramaturgy of interactivity“ as the title of a

manifesto text, where I argued for “an aesthetics of the impossible”.9 In the
same year, I made my first experiment for a Macintosh, with images made
only of black and white pixels, organised with the software HyperCard: the
installation Album sans fin (Endless Album). It was exactly along the lines of
Le Bus and Les Immatériaux, since it explored the rapprochement, if not the
hybridization, of reading and spectacle, of book and cinema: how to place a
filmic substrate into the pages of a book. My later research, such as the Flora
Petrinsularis installation and CD-Rom produced by the ZKM10 would be largely
devoted to this question, a formal and technological stake as much as a cul-
tural and artistic investigation.

This way of not deciding on whether or not the work belonged to the artis-
tic field would again be my approach in Anthologie d’images de synthèse
scientifiques (Anthology of Images of Scientific Syntheses), my videodisc for
Passages de l’image, at the Centre Pompidou in 1990 – alongside pieces by
Dan Graham and Bill Viola that were incontestably artworks, by way of works
by Michael Snow and Chris Marker. And again for the Revue virtuelle, which I
designed from 1991–1997, still at the Centre Pompidou, and whose mission was
to bring to light the aesthetic potential of the digital.

8 Michael Naimark, “Aspen the Verb: Musings on Heritage and Virtuality”, 2006. Online:
9 Jean-Louis Boissier, “Dramaturgie de l’interactivité”, in La Relation comme forme (Geneva:
Mamco, 2009), p. 22–29.
10 Jean-Louis Boissier, “Deux manières de faire des livres”, artintact 1 (Ostfildern: Hatje
Cantz, 1994).
The Bus of Les Immatériaux 117

The Problematic
In the context of the tension produced by the “digital revolution“ that was
announcing itself – unless the change of paradigm had already taken place
and it was a matter of adapting everything to it – Lyotard was asked about
interactivity, in the very year of Les Immatériaux, in the seminar “Art and
communication“. He declared that, as far as the reception of artworks was
concerned: “the demand for an activity or ‘interactivity’ … proves that there
should be more intervention, and that we are thus through with aesthetic
feeling.” Faced with the futile dilemma between passive and active, he
advocates the passible. He denounces “the retreat of the passibility by which
alone we are fit to receive and, as a result, to modify and do, and perhaps even
to enjoy”.11 Such a passibility is necessary in order for us to recognize a work of
art. “Interactional ideology” is the very opposite of this.

For some years now, I have kept a black book – but one with a pink cover
– where I note down what seem to me to be symptoms of what I call the
“ideology of interactivity”. In it we find seemingly simple phrases such as “At
every moment, the viewer is free to …“. Without holding to Lyotard’s nostalgic
refusal, but sharing his suspicion, I have tried to develop a practice of inter-
active works that would make them passible – that is to say, a practice that
would be concretely designed for us (for you).

Translated from the French by Robin Mackay.

11 Jean-François Lyotard, “Something like: Communication… Without Communication,” in

The Inhuman: Reflections on Time, trans. G. Bennington (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1991), p.
Contemporary Art as
Yesterday and

Francesca Gallo

In 1985 as today, the historical and critical interest of Les Immatériaux lies, in
my opinion, in the way it opposed the trend towards the triumph of traditional
values that marked the 1980s. This was a decade in which, in both the political
and cultural arenas, the Western world witnessed the gradual advance and
dominance of conservative positions, with the great success of a return to
the various forms of painting: Transavanguardia, Neue Wilde, New Expres-
sionism, and so on. Les Immatériaux should be understood as a kind of “Man-
ifesto of Technophilic Postmodernism”, of which Jean-François Lyotard was an

While Lyotard left his stamp on Les Immatériaux especially through the work
he did on the exhibition as a medium – the organization and display, the
soundtrack, the catalogue, etc., are the very areas in which one can sense
the hand of the philosopher1 –, for the selection of the works, Lyotard often
relied on specialists (such as Alain Sayag for the photography, or Bernard
Blistène for fine arts). Indeed, after studying the documents in the archives
of the Centre Pompidou, 2 one can understand that the collaboration with the
National Museum of Modern Art (the art department of the Centre Pompidou,

1 Cf. Rosalind Krauss, “Le musée sans mur du postmodernisme”, Cahiers du MNAM, no.
17–18 (1986): 152–158; Reesa Greenberg, Bruce W. Ferguson, Sandy Nairne (eds), Thinking
about Exhibition (London & New York: Routledge, 1996); Jean Davallon, L’exposition à
l’oeuvre (Harmattan: Paris, 2000).
2 I dedicated my PhD to Les Immatériaux and Lyotard’s interest in contemporary art. See
Francesca Gallo, Les Immatériaux. Un percorso di Jean-François Lyotard nell’arte con-
temporanea (Rome: Aracne, 2008); “Ce n’est pas une exposition, mais une oeuvre d’art:
l’exemple de Les Immatériaux de Jean-François Lyotard,” Revue Appareil (online), Varia,
Articles, November 3, 2009,
120 30 Years after Les Immatériaux

[Figure 11] Ruth Francken: Jean-Paul Sartre, 1979. Inventaire, site Tous les auteurs, recto (Source:
Centre Pompidou, MNAM, Bibliothèque Kandinsky).

MNAM) wasn’t easy. For example, Lyotard did little to secure loans from
other museums, an exception being the Egyptian bas-relief of the Grenoble
Museum3 – a strange choice, if truth be known. Despite this, the choice of art-
works exhibited in Les Immatériaux is very stimulating, and gives rise to many
lines of thought, even though the works represent only a part of the materials,
documents, artefacts, instruments and images that filled the 60 sites on the
fifth floor of the Centre Pompidou.

Unstable Photographic Identities

I will concentrate on different types of works by artists who were alive at that
time, in order to demonstrate the idea of postmodern art that Lyotard valued.
Let us start with photography (by which I mean works of art made with a
camera), among which those by Annegret Soltau, Maria Klonaris and Katerina
Thomadaki, and Ruth Francken, are the most representative.

Ruth Francken is one of the few artists included in Les Immatériaux whose work
Lyotard knew personally. Indeed, he wrote a long essay about her entitled
L’Histoire de Ruth, which was published as a short monograph in 1983. Francken
concentrates on photographic portraits using dècoupages to replace faces
with drawings, or silhouettes made of corrugated cardboard and parts of

3 Archives Centre Pompidou, deposit 1994033, b. 668, fasc. Compte-rendus et réunions.

Contemporary Art as an “Immatériaux” 121

[Figure 12] Exhibition view, site L’Ange (site design by Martine Moinot): Maria Klonaris and
Katerina Thomadaki, Orlando-Hermaphrodite II (Source: Klonaris/Thomadaki).

other photographs, bits of broken mirrors and so on. It’s a process which calls
into question the reliability of photographs as a means of documentation,
following the footprints of Surrealism. The triptych Jean-Paul Sartre, 1979 (from
the series Mirrorical Return), is reproduced on the page of L’Inventaire ded-
icated to the site Tous les auteurs [Figure 11]. The position of this work, far from
being random, uses its power to challenge the supposed objectivity of the
portrait, be it photographic or drawn. This aspect is made even more explicit
by the choice of work on public figures (among which are Jean Tinguely, Yannis
Xenakis, Samuel Beckett, John Cage, Joseph Beuys, and Lyotard himself).
The philosopher sees in this modus operandi a proof of the conception of a
multiple identity: these portraits contain within them a type of implied other-
ness of the subject.4

The same applies to another photography work, this time by Maria Klonaris
and Katharina Thomadaki – Orlando-Hermaprodite II (1983, 15 black-and-white
photographs) – which is located on the site L’Ange. This work superimposes
self-portraits of the two artists, and is inspired by Orlando and The Waves by
Virginia Woolf [Figures 12, 13]. On the same site one can find images taken

4 Jean-François Lyotard and Ruth Francken, L’Histoire de Ruth (Paris: Le Castor Astral,
1983), p. 9–65; the same writing is also in the exhibition catalogue of L’Histoire de Ruth, an
exhibition first shown at the Parisian gallery J. & J. Donguy, and afterwards travelling in
Germany in 1986–87.
122 30 Years after Les Immatériaux

from the two artists’ Mistère I: Hermaphrodite endormi/e (1982), which show the
well-known Greek statue.

Klonaris and Thomadaki started a new cycle of works in 1985, dedicated to

L’Ange, in which inter-sexuality and inter-media are joined. Their research is
very complex from the point of view of the media used (film, photography,
multi-media installations, video, holograms and digital images), at the centre
of which there is, however, a cohesive set of themes related to the body and
sexual gender. The focus on these issues defined the artistic nucleus of the
1970s, when efforts in the field of the expanded cinema coincided with the
feminist position. 5

At the site L’Ange, Schwanger (Pregnant), a work by Annegret Soltau, can also
be seen.6 The German artist has focused – from the late ‘70s until today – on
the themes of motherhood and female identity, often using her own body,
as for example in Schwanger: a mosaic of photographs which documents her
pregnancy, following the transformation of the physical appearance of the
woman’s body [Figure 14]. Schwanger consists of front and profile shots, in suc-
cessive stages, and culminates with the explosion of the reassuring shape of
the pregnant body in a blurry image of light and shadow on the film. Formal-
izing the union between birth and death, formation and deformation, defined
and undefined, the sequence of the shots makes this classic and reassuring
theme of motherhood disturbing; it overturns the traditional iconography and
harks back to the feminist demands and the threats that progress in science
and technology poses to the individual and the physical body.

Taken together, these three cases are emblematic of the attention that Les
Immatériaux dedicated to identity, and to the transformation which this
idea has suffered due to advances in science and technology such as plastic
surgery, genetic engineering, robotics, and more recently the web, which is
just the latest challenge to arrive. It is also worth mentioning that the decon-
struction of the concept of identity is one of the most prominent themes of
anti-metaphysics, of which Lyotard and Jacques Derrida were defenders.
Deconstruction is a method that is anti-systemic, anti-authoritarian and anti-
homogenizing, and is fully in line with the type of postmodernism of which
Lyotard was an interpreter.

Looking at our present time, certain themes beloved by Lyotard are still
topical. For example, the game of identity has become one of the most wide-
spread pastimes among web users: social networks, blogs, chatrooms and
dating portals have fuelled the fashion of self-presentation and representation,

5 Cf. Maria Klonaris, Katerina Thomadaki, exhibition catalogue (Paris: ASTARTI, 1985);
Sandra Lischi, Visioni elettroniche (Rome: Marsilio, 2001), p. 109–110; and the artists’ web
6 The photographic reproduction of Schwanger is to be found in the Inventaire, on the page
dedicated to the site Les trois mères.
Contemporary Art as an “Immatériaux” 123

[Figure 13] Maria Klonaris and Katerina Thomadaki: Orlando-Hermaphrodite II (Source: Klonaris/

backed by the great pressure of television. Anna Helmond has explored the
link between search engines, social networks and identity constructions,
showing how software and works associated with these web tools – as
“Identity 2.0” – are a variant of a performative notion of identity, once again
124 30 Years after Les Immatériaux

elaborated within postmodernism. Such forms of self-representation are

more dynamic than static personal webpages, because they make possible the
storage of documents related to the flow of personal and professional life. But
the fact that they are often produced with an API (Application Programming
Interface) causes a substantial seriality of personal profiles, documented in
the various social networks. The relationship between self-determination and
over-determination of identity is variable, but forms and contents automati-
cally selected by software seem to prevail.7

Among female artists like Orlan, Cindy Sherman, Adrian Piper, and so on, Lynn
Hershman, a pioneer of new-media art who has explored gender stereotypes
in her famous alter ego Roberta Beirtmore (1974–78) – a work with a strong pho-
tographic part –, alludes precisely to mixture, where the percentage of stereo-
type prevails over personal identity. I am referring to DiNA (2004), an artificially
intelligent agent, linked to the Internet and equipped with a custom software,
video, and microphone, which makes her able to directly interact with the
museum visitor [Figure 15]. DiNA is engaged in an ongoing campaign, via her
website, for virtual elections to the office of TV-president; she converses with
voters and collects votes on topics pertinent to global survival. DiNA is unique
because she is able to process these responses in real time, and to mix virtual
events which have occurred during her campaign with current events as they
are unfolding throughout the world. Lynn Hershman writes about this work:
“I’ve always been attracted to digital tools and cinematic metaphors that
reflect our times, such as privacy in an era of surveillance, personal identity in
a time of pervasive manipulations.” 8

The Postmodern Painting

In Les Immatériaux there were, of course, some examples of paintings. On this
matter Paul Crowther has pointed out that the lack of the type of painting that
was most popular at that time – New Expressionism, for example – showed
that the selection used by Lyotard was guided by modernist criteria which,
from the starting point of the historical avant-garde, led inevitably to concep-
tual art.9 This is an interesting perspective, that, in my opinion, reiterates the
fact that Lyotard is an interpreter of a postmodernism which is technophilic
and post-structural rather than nostalgic and conservative.10

7 Cf. Anne Helmond, “Lifetracing. The Traces of a Networked Life”, in Networked. A Net-
worked Book about Networked Art, 2009,; Jay D. Bolter and
Richard Grusin, Remediation. Understanding New Media (Cambridge MA: MIT Press, 1999).
8 Lynn Hershman Leeson, in The Art and Film of Lynn Hershman Leeson. Secret Agent,
Private I, ed. Meredith Tromble (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005).
9 Cf. Paul Crowther, Critical Aesthetics and Postmodernism (London: Oxford University
Press, 1996, 1st ed. 1993).
10 Cf. Hal Foster (ed.), The Anti-Aesthetic: Essays in Postmodern Culture (Port Townsend: Bay
Press, 1983); Brian Wallis (ed.), Art after Modernism: Rethinking Representation (New York:
Contemporary Art as an “Immatériaux” 125

[Figure 14] Annegret Soltau: Schwanger, 1978–80, site Trois mères (Source: Annegret Soltau, VG
Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2015).

Even among the painters featured in the exhibition, one finds artists who Lyo-
tard followed closely, like Jacques Monory. The site Peintre sans corps, in fact,
is entirely occupied by Explosion (1973), a set of four diptychs (one painting and
three photographic print canvases) depicting, from a close vantage point, the
explosion of an aeroplane landing on a runway. In the sequence of canvases,
the image fades and grows dim, eventually becoming barely discernible, as
if it had been washed away. The title of the site (Peintre sans corps or “Painter
without body”) alludes to the choice by Monory, as well as other hyper-realist
painters, to suppress the gesture of painting in favour of the photographic
print, a “mechanical” procedure. But the feeling when standing in front of
the canvases is that painting itself was deprived of its body – i.e. the sensual
aspect, the colour. This is one of the sites where the basic assumptions of a
work of art, such as its physical aspects and its procedures, are challenged by
the methods of the artist, following a sense of immateriality. Lyotard, at the
time, had just dedicated to Monory a highly complex text, the Assassinat de
l’experience de la peinture (1984), consisting of two essays – the first written in

Museum of Contemporary Art, 1984); M. Lovejoy, Postmodern Currents: Art and Artists in
the Age of Electronic Media (Ann Arbor: UMI Research Press, 1989).
126 30 Years after Les Immatériaux

the ‘70s, the second at the beginning of the ‘80s11 – which, taken together, doc-
ument the transition from a mindset based in psychoanalysis and Marxism, in
which the forms of artistic production are reflected in the forms of economic
production, to the aesthetics of the sublime applied to contemporary art.
Monory – a dispassionate painter who portrays the environments of the “jet
set” and fashionable interiors – has become famous for polyptychs dedicated
to violent events, in which he painted the scene of a crime or its protagonists,
without sentiment, almost like a photojournalist.

In these paintings, the image is often repeated, as if it were the frame of a film,
or a sequence of photographs; an impression which is also accentuated by
the serial nature of the composition, obtained by the use of adjacent panels.
At the same time, the scenes are often displayed inside monitors, mirrors,
glass and windows, as if to confirm the role of the photographic framing as a
visual mediation, one that is artificial and mechanical. It is for this reason that
Lyotard proposes an implicit comparison between the photochemical and
electronic visual devices, and the reproduction of the image, on the one hand,
and the techniques and themes of the contemporary painter on the other.12

In Ciels, nébuleuses et galaxies (1978–81) Monory, instead, reproduces images of

the starry sky without any “poetry”, because they were taken from recordings
of radio telescopes: the primary source of the painter is stored numerical data
transformed into images by software.

The reference to an “impersonal” iconography, such as radio telescopes or

illustrated magazines, and the use of a mechanical technique, presupposes, of
course, an anonymous observer: the sources and methods are diluted by the
ubiquitous mass media; and, paradoxically, the realism of the scenes painted
by Monory coincides with them being “recognizable” as images that belong to
the universe of fashion, industrial production, scientific documentation, and
the illustrated story of televisual communication.

Lyotard takes the inadequacy of the aesthetic category of beauty in contem-

porary art as widely understood and, in the case of Monory, he explains that
Monory’s painting “does not solicit taste, in the Kantian sense of a disinterested
sentiment that claims universality and, in doing so, appeals to a sensible com-
munity in agreement with itself as to what should be felt.” 13 Monory’s paintings
are postmodern – continues Lyotard – because they have achieved the syn-
thesis of the infinite (sublime) and finite (beautiful).14 This text of 1981 is the
first occasion in which Lyotard applies the concept of the sublime to contem-

11 Jean-François Lyotard, L’Assassinat de l’expérience par la peinture, Monory (Paris: Le Castor

astral, 1984).
12 Ibid.
13 Jean-François Lyotard, “Esthétique sublime du tuer à gages”, in L’Assassinat de
l’expérience par la peinture, Monory, p. 144–145.
14 Ibid., p. 145–154.
Contemporary Art as an “Immatériaux” 127

[Figure 15] Lynn Hershman: DiNA, 2004 (Source: Lynn Hershman).

porary art:15 a connection that is mainly based on the fact that the painter, by
choosing to paint images which use media as their primary source, brings into
play technical reproduction.

Ways of Interaction in Art

However, it is certainly not painting which draws the most attention in the
exhibition curated by Lyotard, but rather – as I pointed out at the beginning –
the presence of works of new-media art, and in particular of some interactive

15 In the same years appeared the following texts by Lyotard: La pittura del segreto
nell’epoca postmoderna, Baruchello (Milan: Feltrinelli, 1982); Rappresentazione,
presentazione, impresentabile (1982), now in L’Inumano (Milan: Lanfranchi, 2001, ed. orig.
Paris, 1988), p. 159–170; Il sublime e l’avanguardia (1983), now in ibid., p. 123–144; L’istante,
Newman (1984), now in ibid., p. 109–122; cf. Francesca Gallo, “Lyotard fra estetica, arte e
critica d’arte. Forme di resistenza e modi di decostruzione”, Annali di critica d’arte, no. 2
(2006), p. 637–660.
128 30 Years after Les Immatériaux

installations and works of computer art, which are novel – bearing in mind the
aesthetic predilections of the philosopher, who usually paid more attention to

Many of those who knew Lyotard remember his curiosity and enthusiastic
interest in new technological devices: stories which we can well believe when
we see pictures of Lyotard using the headphones that carry the soundtrack of
the exhibition [Figure 16]. The headphones were one of the ideas that the phi-
losopher-curator was most proud of, and for which he explicitly took credit.16

Returning to the selection of the works of new-media art, it seems to me

that this is the terrain on which Lyotard had the strongest confrontations
with the other lecturers from the University of Paris VIII. Jean-Louis Boissier
remembered his extensive collaboration on Les Immatériaux: Boissier’s work
Le Bus is one of the iconic works of the exhibition, particularly because of the
exploration of urban space that it proposes, which in some ways recalls the
Situationist practice of urban drifting17 [Figure 9]. The latter, in turn, is a fit-
ting model for the visit to Les Immatériaux: that is, to stroll, with no points of
orientation, being able to keep crossing the same sites, and observe objects
of a different nature, such as those that the Situationists observed in the shop
windows and in the streets of Paris.

Disorientation is perhaps the most ubiquitous element in Les Immatériaux, and

the image which best illustrates the “confusion” experienced during a visit to
the exhibition was, perhaps, the catalogue, which was made up of a hundred
loose sheets (not bound in a book) – much as the individual sites were not
included in a pre-planned, sequential or narrative-driven route of the exhibi-
tion. The architect Philippe Délis has underlined how the spatial conception of
the exhibition – which at the time was novel – has become familiar to us during
the last 20 years, mainly thanks to the experience of surfing the net.18

16 The headphones were tuned to various soundtracks which were present in some areas
of the exhibition. During the visit one could listen to different emissions/programmes
– just like a car radio which passes from one station to another during a journey. In this
case, the relationship between the soundtrack and the visual images was complex in
nature and echoed the method Lyotard had used in various videos in the ‘70s and ‘80s:
in both cases he made extensive use of being out of sync, as the quintessence of the
17 Cf. Jean-Louis Boissier, La relation comme forme. L’interactivité en art (Genève: MAMCO,
2004); F. Gallo, “Le Bus di Jean-Louis Boissier: esplorazione vs deriva”, Materiali di Estetica,
n.s., n. 1 (2010): 322–329.
18 Cf. Phillipe Délis, Les Immatériaux, speech at round table L’Hyper matériel/l’immatériel, le
paradoxe de l’usage des matières, international congress L’œuvre plus que jamais (Institut
Français de Casablanca, April 2005), now in; Architecture:
l’espace-temps autrement…, in E. Théofilakis (ed.), Modernes, et aprés? "Les Immatériaux"
(Paris: Édition Autrement, 1985).
Contemporary Art as an “Immatériaux” 129

[Figure 16] Jean-François Lyotard during the opening of Les Immatériaux, 26 March 1985 (from
left to right: Claude Pompidou, Thierry Chaput, Jean-François Lyotard, Jack Lang) (Source:
Centre Pompidou, MNAM, Bibliothèque Kandinsky, photograph by Jean-Claude Planchet).

But returning to the interactive art of Les Immatériaux, as well as Le Bus,

there is Son=Espace, created ad hoc by Rolf Gehlhaar [Figure 17]. Technically
advanced, the work was indebted to research in visual kinetics. Son=Espace
comprised a space which viewers walked through, with sensors that picked
up the movements of the audience and turned them into sounds by means
of an elaborate computerized system devised by the artist. This project was
born from the idea of creating a piece of music that was non-deterministic,
and in fact Gehlhaar had been working since 1983 on developing an adequate
software program, work which also gave rise to the title of the work. The
movements of the user were detected by a sensor system using ultrasonic
devices, which sent them to the software. The software produced different
sounds, depending on the areas in which the public was located, on the speed
and direction of the movement, and so on. The work consisted of the software
developed by the artist which, among other things, he has continued to work
on since, creating different variations of the prototype exhibited at the Centre
Pompidou19 thanks to the committee of La Villette, the museum of science and
technique that opened in 1986, and for which Les Immatériaux was, from the
point of view of institutional policy, a sort of dress rehearsal.

But what are Lyotard’s ideas about these works of art? Can one consider
“interactivity” as being equivalent, in the arts, to the theme of “the crisis of the
subject” in philosophy?

19 See Rolf Gehlhaar, Sound=Space,

130 30 Years after Les Immatériaux

In the early 1980s, Lyotard argued that “experience” is a modern concept,

which is possible when the following conditions are present: 1) there is a sub-
ject (ego); 2) there is a dimension of time articulated by past-present-future;
and 3) the idea that the world, and the objects which compose it, are objects
of the alienation of the subject itself, which is a necessary step to ensure that
the subject goes dialectically back to itself, according to Hegel’s philosophy.
The expansion of the “technical science-based capitalist” since the nineteenth
century, however, has suppressed these basic points of reference, implying
that the ego, and the linear concept of time that produces experience, do not
exist, and that the world has no need for alienation – that is, for the objecti-
fication of the subject that is necessary for it to understand itself. 20 In a nut-
shell, you could say that we are facing the prelude to the “crisis of the subject”
that is one of the themes of contemporary thought, running parallel to the
“crisis of objectivity”, or the crisis of the existence of the traditional concept of
truth as a matter of correspondence between subject and object. 21

The epistemological and aesthetic legitimacy of plural narratives and truth,

therefore, is reflected in the redefinition of the role of the author. According to
Lyotard, the author may appear in a different guise than that which is defined
by a form;22 while, at the same time, modern day social communication leads
to a rejection of space for contemplation, in favour of the “active” spectator,
who meets the “proposing” author halfway, in a type of dialogue in which the
two roles merge and become confused. 23 On the other hand, Lyotard shares
the premise of the “death of the author” proposed by Roland Barthes in 1968,
according to which it is the reader who takes responsibility for the construc-
tion of meaning.

However, despite these premises, Lyotard is not at all convinced that inter-
activity with a work of art is a transfer of theory from a linguistic game to the
artistic field. This is primarily because art cannot be equated with a move in
a game: if anything, communication can be equated to a move in a game. Art
is a creative move that experiments, that rewrites the rules of the game while
playing. Therefore, when art is combined with new technology, according to
Lyotard, art can not simply change its form to adopt that of new technologies.
The specific point of the artistic experience remains in the realm of emotion
and sensitivity; Lyotard uses a term that is difficult to translate: “passibilité”, 24

20 Cf. Jean-François Lyotard, “L’Expertise”, in L’Assassinat de l’expérience par la peinture,

Monory, p. 7–10.
21 Cf. H. Bertens, The Idea of the Postmodern. A History (London-New York: Routledge, 1995);
R. Ceserani, Raccontare il postmoderno (Torino: Bollati Boringhieri, 1997); D. Harvey, The
Condition of Postmodernity (Cambridge, Mass./Oxford: Routledge, 1990).
22 Jean-François Lyotard, “Qualcosa come: ‘comunicazione… senza comunicazione asdf’”, in
L’Inumano, p. 156.
23 Cf. ibid., p. 156–157.
24 Ibid., p. 155–156.
Contemporary Art as an “Immatériaux” 131

[Figure 17] Rolf Gehlhaar, Son = Espace, 1983-85, installation view, site Musicien malgré lui
(Source: Rolf Gehlhaar).

which is not only the opposite of impassivity, but also the condition by which
we welcome, we receive, as when we are touched by something else without
knowing what it is – or, in Kantian terms, without any intellectual intervention.

It is difficult to say whether the philosopher of postmodernism would have

appreciated a new kind of artwork, made with data flows on the web – one of
the newest forms of interaction. Carlo Zanni, an Italian artist who lives in Milan
and New York, combines technical research with high-level stylistic solutions,
while also integrating suggestions from literary texts and soundtracks.

From Ebay Landscape (2004) – where the form of a simple Japanese landscape
changes constantly following the NASDAQ, the stock market of Ebay, and the
CNN home page – to In time (2005) – a skyline where the weather changes
every 15 minutes according to the meteorological station at La Guardia
Airport, while the choppers and zeppelins follow the updates of CNN website,
and the skyline is like a dynamic histogram related with the most frequent
queries on the Time Out New York website25 – Zanni explores a sort of inter-
action without personal intentions.

The fluid and unstable nature of these works is evidently a metaphor for our
increasingly connected world. In the same direction, Zanni works on “data
cinema”, which is what he calls a kind of work in which the constant changing
of the web – with which the user interacts via his or her Internet connection
– modifies the novel. The Possible Ties Between Illness and Success (2006) is a

25 See
132 30 Years after Les Immatériaux

[Figure 18] Carlo Zanni, The Fifth Day, 2009 (still of the web work) (Source: Carlo Zanni).

reflection upon the relationship between talent, success and manic-depres-

sive illness. We observe the protagonist of a short film attacked by a progres-
sive disease. The spots that slowly cover his body, like a contagious disease,
are generated automatically by software that communicates with Google
Analytics, a well-known statistical analysis system for monitoring the traffic
on websites: “The patches extend as much as the virtual visitors increase, and
distribute on the actor’s body in different places, depending on the geographi-
cal origin of the visitors. The film is constantly changing, due to the interaction
of the unaware spectators.” 26

Another work by Zanni embodies early analysis of digital photography, as

proposed by Edmond Couchot more than fifteen years before. 27 The Fifth Day
(2009) is a sequence of pictures showing a taxi ride. The photos were taken
in Alexandria (Egypt). They change during the exhibition, because linked to
the web, being thereby sensitive to the dataflow from Egypt, describing the
evolution of statistics of some aspects of its cultural and political life. The
data, retrieved from the Internet and transforming the aesthetics of the
photos, relate to such matters as the proportion of seats held by women in
the national parliament (which changes the position of the pedestrian crossing
the road in one photo), or the perception of corruption (which changes the
image in the rear-view mirror of the taxi in another photo), 28 to name just two
[Figure 18].

So, in the end, in my opinion, works of art based on the Internet are the
clearest examples of how Les Immatériaux was on the right track, in the middle
of the 1980s.

26 Valentina Tanni, “Il cinema ha un nuovo DNA”, Exibart.onpaper, no. 47 (2008); "Maps and
Legends. When Photography Met the Web", in Fotografia 2010. Futurespective, exhibition
catalogue (Rome: Macro, 2010).
27 Cf. Edmond Couchot, “La synthèse numérique de l’image: vers un nouvel ordre visuel”,
Traverses, no. 26 (1982), p. 56–63; Edmont Couchat and Norbert Hillaire, L’art numérique:
comme la technologie vient au monde de l’art (Paris: Flammarion, 2003).
28 See
Contemporary Art as an “Immatériaux” 133

[Figure 19] Catherine Ikam, installation sketch, site Temps différé (detail from Inventaire, site
Temps différé, verso) (Source: Centre Pompidou, MNAM, Bibliothèque Kandinsky).

Continuing our stroll through Les Immatériaux, looking for works of new-media
art, we encounter a work that is almost “rudimentary” for its time, even when
compared to Le Bus or Son=Espace, for example. I am talking about Temps
différé (1985) by Catherine Ikam, a closed-circuit video installation identifiable
with the site of the same name.

Originally linked to minimalist research on perception and its space-time

dimension (an example being Bruce Nauman’s work), and subsequently
134 30 Years after Les Immatériaux

focusing on the social implications of video surveillance (different examples

we can cite are the experiences of Fred Forest and Dan Graham), closed-circuit
video installations are located in an intermediate position between video art
and interactive environments.

The artwork of Ikam focuses in particular on the distorting effect that mirrors
have on closed-circuit television [Figure 19]. Temps différé consists of two
rooms, which are identical, empty and interconnected, equipped with a video
surveillance system: a minimalist purity whose result is rather mundane. In
the first room, the visitor sees on the monitor the place where he is standing,
devoid of his own presence; in the second environment, however, the TV dis-
plays an image of the preceding space, recorded immediately before. In this
way, the experience of the place and its image on the monitor do not match,
as occurs in the classical Corridors of Bruce Nauman. The goal in both cases is
to undermine the fidelity, realism and documentary ability of the video, and to
simultaneously induce in the viewer a kind of cognitive vertigo, caused by the
inconsistencies. 29

I have long questioned why Lyotard chose such an outdated work, even if it
was specially made for Les Immatériaux. Beyond any other considerations,
I believe that the philosopher meant the selected artworks to serve as
emblems, symbols of certain tendencies in contemporary society, and that he
therefore sometimes glossed over the artistic value of some of the works. Les
Immatériaux is a classic example of an educational exhibition – a theoretical
exhibition if you like – rather than an object-oriented show. And this is also
the reason why some works were displayed both at the 1983 exhibition
Electra: Electricity and Electronics in the Twentieth Century,30 and at Les Immatéri-
aux, because they have a very different meaning and purpose in the two

In the case of Temps différé, it is probably the idea of using feedback, which is
at the core of the artwork, that Lyotard found interesting: it is a concept that
was borrowed from biology and psychology, and that has been applied to both
social communication and the arts. Starting from the various forms of inter-
activity, passing through some examples of Institutional Critique, of Concep-
tual Art and Relational Art, the attention given to “feedback” is a typical aspect
of late modern culture, and one of those concepts that mark the horizon of
artistic research in the last 30 to 40 years, even if it changes its appearance.

Before concluding, some thoughts on one of the most challenging and

perhaps the most successful spaces included in Les Immatériaux – at least

29 Cf. Catherine Ikam. Dispositif pour un parcours video, exhibition catalogue (Paris: Centre
Georges Pompidou, 1980).
30 Cf. Electra: l’électricité et l’électronique dans l’art du XX siècle, exhibition catalogue curated
by Frank Popper, Paris (Musée de la Ville), 1984; Katherine Dieckmann, “Electra Myths:
Videos, Modernism, Postmodernism”, Art Journal, Fall (1985), p. 195–203.
Contemporary Art as an “Immatériaux” 135

according to the public at the time. I refer to the site Labyrinthe du language,
full of computer terminals where one could experience the first rudimentary
forms of network connection through the network Minitel (the French ances-
tor of the web), and play with some examples of computer art which were
extremely simple and graphics-based.

From a current perspective, it is Epreuves d’écriture that attracts our interest.

Its relative failure – due both to the inadequacy of the computer equipment,
and a lack of familiarity on the part of the intellectuals with this new form
of writing and the idea of mutual cooperation – brings us to examine the
instincts of the curatorial team and the importance of infrastructure in the
form taken by an artwork. Today Epreuves d’écriture is a curious chronicle pub-
lication that includes the experience of specialists from different disciplines,
called to deal with the new ways of online word processing, which was still full
of technical problems. The book is obviously the wrong format for a work that
should have continued to be produced in a digital format, like a hypertext (on
a hard-drive memory, because the CD-ROM did not yet exist).

Epreuves d’écriture is located between the Plissure du texte (1983), which Roy
Ascott created for the Electra exhibition, and the network organized also by
Ascott for the laboratory Ubiqua at the Corderie dell’Arsenale at the 1986
Venice Biennal. 31. At Les Immatériaux, instead, Roy Ascott presented Organ et
function d’Alice au pays des merveilles, in which, through Minitel, the inhabitants
of the Île-de-France could intervene by altering the text from home, in a more
anonymous and free way than in other, comparable works by Ascott:

Randomly selected quotations from a French translation of Lewis Caroll’s

Alice in Wonderland were juxtaposed with quotations from a scientific
treatise entitled Organe et function, creating unexpected relationships and
associations. Conventional notions of originality, authenticity, objecthood,
narrative, and style were supplanted by appropriation, duplication, dis-
tribution, juxtaposition, and randomness. 32

I agree with Edward Shanken’s claims, not only in relation to the vitality of
BBS (Bulletin Board System), local networks and blogs in the 1990s and the
first decade of this century, but even today, when verbal communication and
narration are still attractive for those who work with new-media art.

Translated from the Italian by Mary Desmond and Pasquale Polidori.

31 Cf. XLII Esposizione internazionale d’arte. Arte e scienza, exhibition catalogue (Venice:
Marsilio, 1986): some artists who had participated in Les Immatériaux participated also in
this edition of the Venice Biennale.
32 Edward A. Shanken, From Cybernetics to Telematics: the Art, Pedagogy and Theory of Roy
Ascott, in R. Ascott, Telematic Embrace, ed. E.A. Shanken (Berkeley-London, 2007, 1st ed.
2003), p. 67.
Les Immatériaux:
An “Immodern” Project

Thierry Dufrêne

The preparatory papers of Jean-François Lyotard for the exhibition Les

Immatériaux, which can be consulted in the archives of the Centre Pompidou,
constitute the sub-text of the final event. The philosopher reflected deeply
upon the prefix in- (im-) which baptises the exhibition by a neologism: “the
negation im- in ‘immaterials’ indicates the situation of a face-to-face, a con-
frontation that opposes the subject, the subject of will, of spirit, of the gaze,
to that which is not him, and which falls under the general denomination
mât. This face-to-face situation, then, is undermined today”1 – undermined,
indeed, to the point of suggesting a whole series of aliases, notions and
related attitudes (“immature“, “incréer“, “immortel” etc.). Lyotard is aware of
the existence of a paradox, and retains all of its critical and dialectical value:
Is the project of Les Immatériaux really postmodern, even though in many
ways it continues the modern project of knowledge and mastery of nature,
such that we might rightfully wonder if the title of the exhibition does not hide
another, which would be that of the “immodern“? – a neologism which Lyotard
did not create, and that, from our perspective, has only the status of a working

The philosopher specified that, previously, a material was something natural

that man transformed according to his purposes or projects. Today, on the
one hand, a material which does not exist can be invented according to the

1 Archives Centre Pompidou, Exposition “Les Immatériaux”, Dossier 2009012; transcript

from a recording of Jean-François Lyotard on two cassette tapes, which cannot currently
be located. According to the beginning sentences, “Après six mois de travail en commun
avec l’équipe du C.C.I. et à un an de l’ouverture de l’exposition intitulée Les Immatériaux”.
It was probably produced in Spring 1984. The citation is from page 4, line 17 and onward,
translation see this volume, p. 32.
138 30 Years after Les Immatériaux

project (material of synthesis); on the other, man is more and more conscious
that he cannot have any more simple rational projects. Why? First, because
he inherits from the past and cannot build on a tabula rasa (as the moderns
had still hoped). Second, because the complexity of technoscience multiplies
types of information, mediation and interaction (with machines, institutions),
resulting in a decrease in the voluntary part of collective action (states,
companies), and all the more that of the individual. And last, because the
models of action and purpose that had been instituted during the Age of the
Enlightenment showed the limits of anthropocentrism. Lyotard qualifies the
new structure of creativity, in the field of industry as in that of art, as follows:
“the principle upon which is built the operating structure is not one of a stable
‘substance’, but of an unstable set of interactions”. 2 The artificial intelligence
of machines and the materials of synthesis decreased the difference between
the human mind and things. This instability creates a concern, a concern
which characterizes the postmodern condition.

But when we consider the actual exhibition, its catalogue, and the later papers
of Lyotard, we can distinguish between Lyotard’s thought when he planned
the exhibition and his thought as modified by it. This thought was undoubtedly
postmodern in the preparatory stages: the ascendancy of the human sub-
ject is “weakened” in the term “immatériaux”, as it is generally the case in the
postmodern condition (and Lyotard is happy with it) 3. Yet, in our view, his
thought later became “immodern“, since he considers that the idea “of general
interaction strengthens“ between man and non-human beings, the machines,
the messages, the natural elements (we would add certainly today: animals),
since man himself is not “the origin of messages, but sometimes the receiver,
sometimes the referent, sometimes a code, sometimes a support for the mes-
sage; and where sometimes he himself is the message”.4 After the ontology
of the subject (modernity) and its crisis (postmodernity), the ontology of the
interaction (“immodernity”) opens. After the “sorrow“, the “melancholy“, which
are the words which qualify the postmodern; the philosopher speaks then of
his “gaiety“ and even his “very big gaiety”. 5

An art historian may justly consider Les Immatériaux as the first exhibition to
have been held in Paris’s Centre Pompidou which considered contemporary
art as part of a “global social fact”, to employ the expression of Marcel Mauss.

2 In a text titled “Les Immatériaux. Présentation” dated April 1984, p. 5. The “I” in the text
can be ascribed with certitude to the philosopher. Archives Centre Pompidou, Exposition
“Les Immatériaux”, Dossier 2009012.
3 Archives Centre Pompidou, Exposition “Les Immatériaux”, Dossier 2009012, transcript,
p. 5, “the human subject becomes no longer a subject but, I would say… just one case
among the many multiple interactions that constitute the universe”, in this volume, p.
4 Ibid., p. 37.
5 Ibid., p. 36.
Les Immatériaux 139

In his famous essay The Gift: Forms and Functions of Exchange in Archaic
societies (1925), Mauss observed that those human transactions which appear
the most free, such as acts of giving and receiving, are framed by obligations
of reciprocity which constitute real social rules. The gift represents the donor
as well as the relations between the donor and the recipient and beyond, their
chalk-linings. In a comparable way, “immatériaux” according to Lyotard are, as
already mentioned, an “unstable set of interactions“.6

Did Lyotard make the first postmodern (art) exhibition? Shall we say that
contemporary artists (since the 1960s) are postmodern only because they did
not believe they could enlighten the future of their societies any more, as the
avant-gardes of modern art believed?

In the exhibition, we see them nevertheless fascinated by the deciphering

of the present, which they do not define according to the past, as did the
tradition, but from which they question both the past (origin) and the future
(transformation). There also the hypothesis of “immodern art“ can be

Lyotard is impassioned by Barnett Newman’s redefinition of the sublime: as

Marx had done for Hegel, Newman put Kant and Burke back on their feet.
The sublime is here and now. A Klein, a Fontana, are sublime; no backworld
is necessary. And we are in the “Irreprésentable“, in the abstraction, which is
only colour and rhythm. On the contrary, Larry Bell’s glass cube and François
Morellet’s neon stole the light and presented it in its immanence, filtered
by the glass or by the material “neon“. It is light which is at the same time
matter (subject) and material (support). Simone Martini’s Annunciation (1333)
in the exhibition can suggest the overtaking of the opposition between the

6 In The Gift (London: Routledge, 1990), p. 26, Mauss insisted on the mixture of people and
things. The gift is not only an object; it is the person who gives it and in a way remains in
it and acts through it: “In short, this represents an intermingling. Souls are mixed with
things; things with souls. Lives are mingled together, and this is how, among persons
and things so intermingled, each emerges from their own sphere and mixes together.
This is precisely what contract and exchange are“. And in the record of Lyotard’s talk
presenting the exhibition Les Immatériaux in Spring 1984, Après six mois de travail…,
the philosopher said: “we see a sort of reinforcement, an exaggeration almost, of the
intimacy between the mind and things. For example, the software that is coming into
general use on all scales is mind incorporated into matter; synthetic products, … are
matters that are a result of knowledge – they are instigated by the mind …“ (in this
volume p. 32). Another link between Mauss and Lyotard is their method, that could be
summarized in a “Tout parle“ (anything speaks; anything means). In The Gift (London:
Routledge, 1990), p. 56, describing the houses of the Trobriands, Mauss asserts:
“Everything speaks – the roof, the fire, the carvings, the paintings – for the magical
house is built“. In the talk just mentioned, Lyotard said: “Basically it will always be a
question of asking: What does it speak of ? How does it speak? What does it speak with?
What speaks and what does it speak to? Presupposed in the very idea of modernity is
the idea that everything speaks …“ (ibid., p. 31).
140 30 Years after Les Immatériaux

transcendence of the “irreprésentable” and the immanence of the “Stolen

light“ (Lumière dérobée).

“Immodern” is the Annunciation, in its anachronistic presence. The exhibition

proposed the anamnesis of art. A new “In-“ is outlined: “Intemporel” (timeless),
a title that Malraux gave to the last book of his trilogy The Metamorphosis of
the Gods in 1973. For Malraux, the last stage of the “Musée imaginaire“ is the
“museum of broadcasting“. And The Metamorphosis of the Gods had become in
1978 a documentary under the title Métamorphoses du regard made by Clovis
Prévost. The transfer from book to film is essential in Malraux’s thinking. A
similar transfer from book to an audiovisual media production such as the
exhibition Les Immateriaux, is conceived by Lyotard as a real fulfilment. Lyotard
stressed that it was he who had the idea of including sound in Les Immatériaux:
he even said that this was his real contribution.

The exhibition, but also its hidden images – those that were not used and
are still in boxes,7 potential – present breathtaking material: scientific images
via the electron microscope, plans of drops of water and chromosome,
radiologies, scanners and chromatographies. The underlying idea of a lab-
oratory of cosmogenesis – of “1985: A Space and Time Odyssey“, in reference
to Stanley Kubrick’s movie of 1968, 2001: A Space Odyssey – appears in the
numerous photographs of the sky, the spectographs of invisible stars, and the
impressive audiovisual astrophysics device projected on a circumference of
three metres in diameter in Creusets stellaires (matière site). But as in science
fiction, the modern project is infused with a “sorrow“, a “melancholy“: it is
a very sophisticated civilization, but at its end, it wonders about its origins.
Already machines seem more human than man and sing songs before dying,
as did the robot HAL 9000 in Kubrick’s movie. Man needs to be born again.

Modernism, according to Lyotard, is the history and the narrative of a robbery,

of an interception: “all the messages were not intended for us, we steal them“
(matière site). Man folded the world in his intention. Drawing is considered
as the “mother of all the arts“: the exhibition shows that with the calculated
images and the materials of synthesis; it is reality which is summoned to
look like drawing (Référence inversée). Nevertheless, the artists are precisely
those who stage a reality which escapes being kidnapped: in the impressive
Present continuous past(s) (1974) by Dan Graham, the matter (subject) of time
is infinitely divided in the mirrored image. Also, as Matisse had previously
noticed, the immanence of colour always escapes the line drawn by the pencil.

Of all those who tried to define what an “art world“, an “art network“ is
(Michael Baxandall, 1972; Howard Becker, 1982; Raymonde Moulin, 1992),
Lyotard is the only one to have individualized the “matrix“ – the code, sep-
arating it clearly from the four other “mat “s: matériau, matériel, matière and

7 Archives Centre Pompidou, Exposition “Les Immatériaux”, Dossier 94033.

Les Immatériaux 141

maternité. For Baxandall as for Becker, patrons and artists share maternity – if
we transpose it into the terms of Lyotard – of works (materials) which deal with
subjects according to the mental and sensitive equipment peculiar to a given
period and culture. The code is fluid in the exchange: the matrix is transparent
in the exchange. We can say that it’s the same for the art anthropologist Alfred
Gell when he represents the “network of art“ (Art Nexus) in his book Art and
Agency (1998): the relations reveal four fundamental terms: artist / index /
prototype / recipient, which – except for the “recipient”, who does not really
have an equivalent in the five “mat ”, according to Lyotard – correspond to
material / maternity / … / material (subject), with two positions: active, pas-
sive (agent, patient). The reciprocity of the given orders (information) and the
received orders operates in Gell’s view as in an exchange between people

Only in Lyotard’s view does the matrix (the code) exist independently of the
people, and even threatens to escape them for ever. A set of rules, rolls,
rations, uniforms takes towards the human being a distance equivalent to
the one that the human being had taken towards nature by stealing all the
messages. Could the same kidnapping be made at his expense? Could the
inhuman – the machine – be able to take command?

Lyotard sometimes seems to lean towards a pessimistic vision of

“immatériaux“. Fourteen years after the exhibition Les Immatériaux, released
only one year after the death of the philosopher in April 1998, the movie Matrix
(1999) by the Wachowski brothers gave a global dimension to this pessimism.
Not only machines became the executioners of human beings, but the matrix
– the code, which gives its title to the movie – became a “system“ of oppres-
sion. The movie postulates that any hybridization with machines, any artificial
construction, any measure (mâtram) will inevitably turn against human beings.
It activates a sort of “Neo-“ symbolism (“Neo” is the name of the hero) related
to Gothic revival or New Age revival. Nothing seems more distant from the
thought of Lyotard, for whom the postmodern condition doesn’t imply a
return to the origin, but a return on the origin.

More optimistic, more critical, more articulate, the recent movie Interstellar
(2014) by Christopher Nolan is thus ultimately more Lyotardian. Having
crossed a black hole, the hero Cooper comes back from the future of space
just behind the bookcase of his daughter Murph, and sends her a message.
The bookcase reminds us of Borgès’s library, which is a major reference of
Les Immatériaux. In the fourth dimension (see Marcel Duchamp and Lyotard),
Cooper can walk in an architecture whose galleries would be as many different
moments in life. The bookcase is the interface between multiple intercon-
nected spaces. Cooper implements (im)materials (prints, drawings in the
dust, magnetic current), a matrix (Morse code), a material (books, watch), a
maternity (he is the father who co-produces the equations with his daughter),
142 30 Years after Les Immatériaux

and a subject matter (the secret to boost life, to prevent everything from again
turning into dust).

For that purpose, it has been necessary for him to go over to the other side: to
pass through a wormhole opening onto other galaxies. This wormhole recalls
the symbol of life given by the goddess to the Egyptian Pharaoh Nectanébo
II in the Egyptian bas-relief of Karnak which opened the exhibition Les
Immatériaux in the Centre Pompidou in 1985. This wormhole recalls the symbol
of life given by the goddess to the Egyptian Pharaoh Nectanébo II in the
Egyptian bas-relief of Karnak which opened the exhibition Les Immatériaux in
the Centre Pompidou in 1985. The engraved stone stood at the entrance, and a
stretched-out, staggered photographic reproduction was the last exhibit. The
bas-relief reminds us of the monolith in Kubrick’s 2001, A Space Odyssey. Like
the monolith, it testifies to the human as being a “case“. Lyotard indeed saw
the human subject no longer as master, but “as a case of the multiple inter-
actions which constitute the universe“.

His vision joins that of Hannah Arendt, who in Between Past and Future (1961)
asserted that works of art “are fabricated not for men, but for the world
which is meant to outlast the life-span of mortals, the coming and going of the
generations.“ 8

That would be the “immodern“ hypothesis.

8 Hannah Arendt, Between Past and Future. (New York: Viking, 1961), p. 210.
The Shadow of
the Sublime:
On Les Immatériaux

Bernard Stiegler

A recent article by Vivek Chibber, “Capitalism, Class and Universalism“,1

denounced the ideological devastation wrought by what, on the other side
of the Atlantic, is referred to as poststructuralism, and by variations on this
theme such as postcolonial studies. Chibber seems to see no virtue in the
questions raised by those currents of French thought collectively described as
poststructuralist – and this is a serious mistake.

But for those who, like me, affirm the necessity of continuing to examine
the works of poststructuralism, an even greater mistake would consist in
ignoring the questions raised by Chibber – or, in other words, to dismiss such

In relation to these questions, my own thesis – which I attempted to syn-

thesize in States of Shock by proposing an “internal critique“ of poststruc-
turalism (“internal“, that is, a critique that proceeds by taking up as my own
the expectations of poststructuralism, in order to analyse and overcome its
limits, and in order to elaborate what I call a “new critique“) – is that what post-
structuralism (which resembles and is often confused with postmodernism)
has proven itself incapable of thinking is echnics. 2

1 Vivek Chibber, “Capitalism, Class and Universalism: Escaping the Cul-de-Sac of

Postcolonial Theory,” Socialist Register 50 (2014), p. 63–79, available from the author at: An
abridged version appeared in the May 2014 edition of Le Monde Diplomatique.
2 Bernard Stiegler, States of Shock: Stupidity and Knowledge in the Twenty-First Century,
trans. Daniel Ross (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2014).
148 30 Years after Les Immatériaux

Les Immatériaux was presented to the public at the Centre Georges Pompidou
in 1985, and obviously formed a “discourse figure“ about matter, and thus
materialism, and a “discourse figure“ that was perceived as a veritable
“postmodern manifesto“. Les Immatériaux, then, did indeed give some
thought to technics, and did so eloquently, but also mysteriously and tacitly
– the technology of “language machines“ 3 constituting a major indicator
of “postmodernity“, as was already the case in The Postmodern Condition. 4
And Lyotard clearly apprehends these machines in terms of a question of
writing – machines through which Lyotard was led to link writers together
in an operation he called Épreuves d’écriture – and this was thus a prescient
approach insofar as it foresaw that the network would soon be a major issue
for “postmodernity“.

For reasons I explain at greater length in States of Shock, however, the ques-
tion of technics that lies behind that of writing is not yet thought as such in Les
Immatériaux. 5 This is not only because this exhibition does not have a didactic
relation to its public, but because Lyotard sees the technical writing that he
refers to as “telegraphy“, which is the writing of “development“, as being in
opposition to anamnesic writing, which according to Lyotard would be what
“resists“ this development.

Furthermore, if the exhibition could not have been and should not have
been didactic, this was because Les Immatériaux needed to grant access to
the experience of what Lyotard called “the figural“, even though the problem-
atic of Discourse, Figure6 gives way here to the question of bearing witness to
a différend in reason that goes beyond the modern, Lyotard affirming this by
bearing witness to it on the basis of Kant read through Wittgenstein.

It is on the basis of what at that time was referred to as the linguistic turn – an
expression coined by Gustav Bergmann7 and taken up by Lyotard on the back
cover of The Differend8 – that Les Immatériaux presented what, 30 years later,
we ourselves instead understand as a technological turn.

Les Immatériaux was an exhibition conceived and presented in the context of

what was then, in France, called la télématique – France being in those days

3 Jean-François Lyotard, “New Technologies”, Political Writings, trans. Bill Readings and
Kevin Paul Geiman (London: UCL Press, 1993), p. 18.
4 Jean-François Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, trans. Geoff
Bennington and Brian Massumi (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984).
5 See Stiegler, States of Shock, chap. 4.
6 Jean-François Lyotard, Discourse, Figure, trans. Antony Hudek and Mary Lydon
(Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press, 2011).
7 Gustav Bergmann, Logic and Reality (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1964).
8 Jean-François Lyotard, The Differend: Phrases in Dispute, trans. Georges Van Den Abbeele
(Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1988).
The Shadow of the Sublime 149

ahead of its time in terms of digital technology, telematics having been devel-
oped through the Minitel and its messaging systems thanks to the political
will reflected in the Minc and Nora report on The Computerization of Society,9
already cited in The Postmodern Condition six years before Les Immatériaux. The
Differend was published two years before Les Immatériaux (and 11 years after
the publication of Libidinal Economy10).

In the telematic shock that calls language into question through technics
(through the appearance of what Derrida, in Echographies of Television, called
“teletechnologies“ 11) – that is, that calls logos into question through tekhnē
– there occurs what I refer to as a doubly epokhal redoubling.12 Between the
two moments of the doubly epokhal redoubling work is performed, work in
relation to the question of shock itself, that is, in relation to the question of the
turn and of epokhality, of the Kehre, and finally of Gestell. In saying this, I am
thinking not just of Lyotard reading Heidegger, but of Blanchot and Nietzsche –
that is, of the “exigency of return“ and the “change of epoch“ to which Blanchot
referred in The Infinite Conversation.13

Les Immatériaux undoubtedly set the scene in a premonitory way for what,
from our standpoint today, began to unfold 21 years ago (at the end of April
1993), and that opened up the hyper-industrial scene of the twenty-first
century. Just as Derrida, in Archive Fever,14 foresaw the advent of today’s
retentional question, so too Lyotard saw coming the digital condition – that
is, the computational condition – borne by “language machines“, as he called
them. And what will be heard over the infrared headphones offered to vis-
itors to the exhibition is a strikingly clear noetico-sensory anticipation of the
everyday digital realities of the twenty-first century.

Like Libidinal Economy and like The Postmodern Condition, and for reasons that
may be different in each case but that are part of a single line of inquiry, for

9 Simon Nora and Alain Minc, The Computerization of Society: A Report to the President of
France, no translator listed (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1981). First delivered in French in 1978.
10 Jean-François Lyotard, Libidinal Economy, trans. Iain Hamilton Grant (Bloomington and
Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1993).
11 Jacques Derrida and Bernard Stiegler, Echographies of Television: Filmed Interviews, trans.
Jennifer Bajorek (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2002).
12 On the “doubly epokhal redoubling” see Bernard Stiegler, Technics and Time, 1: The Fault
of Epimetheus, trans. Richard Beardsworth and George Collins (Stanford: Stanford Uni-
versity Press, 1998), pp. 233–238; Bernard Stiegler, Technics and Time, 2: Disorientation,
trans. Stephen Barker (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2009), p. 72–77; Bernard
Stiegler, What Makes Life Worth Living: On Pharmacology, trans. Daniel Ross (Cambridge:
Polity Press, 2013), p. 34–36 and p. 112–116.
13 Maurice Blanchot, The Infinite Conversation, trans. Susan Hanson (Minneapolis and
London: University of Minnesota Press, 1993), p. 264–281.
14 Jacques Derrida, Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression, trans. Eric Prenowitz (Chicago and
London: University of Chicago Press, 1996).
150 30 Years after Les Immatériaux

me Les Immatériaux triggered both doubt and unease, but also admiration
and even (though this is not true of Libidinal Economy) fascination. The doubt
is both political and conceptual: the scene that opens up with Les Immatériaux
(and in a way that will, by 2014, come to seem perfectly faithful in advance to
the scene of the twenty-first century) is that of a performativity of discourse, a
performativity that seems to legitimate illegitimacy, that seems to legitimate
the end of narratives of legitimation founded on the affirmation of law as what
always lies beyond any state of fact – the end of narratives founded on the
affirmation of this difference.

What struck me then as a malaise – or what I would later refer to as a mal-

être – and that strikes me today as denial and as submission to a state of
fact, a denial and a submission caused by a technological shock consisting in
the radical transformation of the world by telematics, is the very thing that
seems, in the eyes of Vivek Chibber, if not to pave the way for, then at least
to legitimate, a form of capitalist organization that leads to financialization,
that is, to globalization as universalization by the market (as described, for
example, by Deleuze15).

Nobody was clear-sighted about this at the beginning of the 1980s (except
perhaps, precisely, Deleuze). But today we must be so – while never-
theless insisting that there is no light that does not cast a shadow: hence
we must practise a pharmacology of enlightenments, which is also to say, a
pharmacological critique of the Aufklärung, and we must do so in an epoch
where technology functions at the speed of light. Without such a leap, we are
finished: this is, for us, a duty and a historical task – where this “us“ refers in
particular to “digital studies“. The article published in The Independent on May
1st, 2014 by Stephen Hawking, Stuart Russell, Max Tegmark and Frank Wilczek
testifies to the extreme urgency of the need to think this situation (even
if their argument is conducted on bases other than those I am advocating

I read The Postmodern Condition in 1983, on the advice of Derrida and because
he recommended taking Lyotard as my master’s degree supervisor. And this
reading was undoubtedly what then allowed me to project myself beyond

15 Gilles Deleuze, “Control and Becoming”, Negotiations, trans. Martin Joughin (New York:
Columbia University Press, 1995), p. 172-173; Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, What is
Philosophy?, trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Graham Burchell (New York: Columbia University
Press, 1994), p. 106.
16 Stephen Hawking, Stuart Russell, Max Tegmark and Frank Wilczek, “Transcendence looks
at the implications of artificial intelligence – but are we taking AI seriously enough?”,
The Independent (London), May 1, 2014, available at:
The Shadow of the Sublime 151

Derrida and towards the question of technics and industry – even if, on the
one hand, my immediate impression was that Lyotard had got caught up,
along with Alain Touraine,17 Talcott Parsons18 and Daniel Bell,19 in the fable of
post-industrial society; and even if, on the other hand, I quickly came to the
conclusion that his posture in relation to technics ultimately remained quite
metaphysical (if not modern).

I believe that what remains metaphysical about technics in Lyotard must be

related back to Kant: this is what I will now endeavour to show. I will try to do
so, not by referring to “Theory and Practice“, 20 as I did in the final chapter of
Technics and Time, 3 21 when I wanted to show the continuity that runs from
Aristotle to Kant in terms of their common thought of technics in relation
to “that which can be otherwise than it is“, to endekhomenon allos ekhein,
but instead by returning to what, in my commentary on the transcendental
deduction of the Critique of Pure Reason,22 I referred to as the fourth syn-
thesis:23 that of the transcendental imagination as the power of exteriorization
that founds tertiary retention and is founded on it, and that constitutes as such
organological power and knowledge (that is, the power and knowledge that
arranges living, technical and social organs into a noetico-pharmacological

If the last grand question posed by Lyotard is that of the differend, if this ques-
tion is just – in the sense of Au juste, of Just Gaming24 – so that the four critiques
(of pure reason, practical reason, aesthetic judgement, and the works on
history) would be language games; and if these games are not separable from
an organology and from a process of grammatization that encompasses all
grammatical questioning, including in Wittgenstein’s sense; all this inclines
towards and conjugates the experience of a pharmacological default that must
be. And Lyotard is incapable of problematizing this pharmacological necessity
for the same reasons that so prevented Adorno. Like Adorno, Lyotard leaves in

17 Alain Touraine, The Post-Industrial Society. Tomorrow’s Social History: Classes, Conflicts
and Culture in the Programmed Society, trans. Leonard F. X. Mayhew (New York: Random
House, 1971).
18 Talcott Parsons, “Some Reflections on Post-Industrial Society”, Japanese Sociological
Review 24 (1973), p. 109–113.
19 Daniel Bell, The Coming of Post-Industrial Society: A Venture in Social Forecasting (New
York: Basic Books, 1973).
20 Immanuel Kant, “On the Common Saying: ‘This May be True in Theory, but it does not
Apply in Practice’”, Political Writings, trans. H. B. Nisbet (Cambridge and New York: Cam-
bridge University Press, 1991), p. 61–92.
21 Bernard Stiegler, Technics and Time, 3: Cinematic Time and the Question of Malaise, trans.
Stephen Barker (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2011), chap. 6.
22 Immanuel Kant, Critique of Pure Reason, trans. Norman Kemp Smith (London: Macmillan,
23 Stiegler, Technics and Time, 3, p. 140–141, and see chap. 2.
24 Jean-François Lyotard and Jean-Loup Thébaud, Just Gaming, trans. Wlad Godzich
(Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1985).
152 30 Years after Les Immatériaux

the shadows the question of the schematism – and in this case, he leaves it in the
aesthetic shadow of the sublime, that is, of the infinite as the beginning and end
of desire.

And he thereby takes a turn that is not just linguistic, but aestheticizing, as do
most of the philosophers of that period, and as does, today, Jacques Rancière
– all thereby fleeing from the new question of political economy concealed in
the becoming-techno-logical of the technics of grammatization, a becoming
that has struck logos with an unprecedented shock.

If we propose that there is a fourth synthesis, which makes possible the work
of the three syntheses of the imagination as presented in the first edition of
the Critique of Pure Reason, and as their arrangement; and if we posit that this
synthesis is tekhnē – and I am here taking up Lyotard’s theme in “Logos and
Techne“ 25 – then it is with Kant that we must discuss the immatériau.

For if the schema becomes tertiary retention, as I have argued in Technics and
Time, 3, then it is an immatériau – as well as being what I call a hyper-material,
supported and formed by hyper-matter.

(A word on this word, immatériau – which emerged from a seminar on the root
“mât “ given by Lyotard at the Collège international de philosophie: Lyotard was
originally asked by the Centre de création industrielle of the Centre Pompidou
to create an exhibition on new materials. The immatériau is anything but
immaterial. It is not simply a material, but it is very material. This material is,
notably, that of language machines – that is, of language, and with it of logos,
deemed since the advent of metaphysics (that is, since Plato) to proceed from
or originate in those immaterials that are the spiritual, the suprasensible, the
intelligible, and so on. I would have liked to speak to you in these terms about
what I call hyper-matter, but I cannot do this on this occasion. Were I able, I
would have tried to show that the immatériau requires us to think what I have
called the organized inorganic and the power of organization that results from
the organological and pharmacological situation of this technical form of life
that is, according to Georges Canguilhem, the non-inhuman26 – but there is
insufficient time for this here.)

In the economic and political context that was being engineered in the 1980s
as the conservative revolution and ultra-liberalism – an economic and political
context that exceeded thought, that thought was no longer capable of under-
standing – it is precisely the functioning and dysfunction of this schematism

25 Jean-François Lyotard, “Logos and Techne, or Telegraphy”, The Inhuman: Reflections on

Time, trans. Geoffrey Bennington and Rachel Bowlby (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1991).
26 Georges Canguilhem, The Normal and the Pathological, trans. Carolyn R. Fawcett and
Robert S. Cohen (New York: Zone Books, 1991), p. 200–201.
The Shadow of the Sublime 153

that fails to be understood. Soviet “materialism“, too, which was ultimately a

dogma more than a philosophical position, a Stalinist and vulgar metaphysics,
was incapable of conceiving, on the basis of Marxist concepts, the epis-
temological, philosophical, scientific and industrial stakes of information
technologies; while in the West, these stakes were increasingly and in a very
superficial way conceived as the advent of a “post-industrial“ age (a term
promoted by Daniel Bell and Alain Touraine, among others) – yet beyond this
fable, the American computer and information industry continued to develop
at an ever-increasing pace. The delusional discourse of the Soviets, Stalinists
and ordinary Marxists about American power with respect to computational
technologies was thus a clear historical symptom of the denial of the
organological, pharmacological and hyper-material power of America: such
a denial is symptomatic of the inability to think what is at stake, namely, the
schematism concretized through what in Technics and Time, 3 I call retentional

These systems are what, three years after Les Immatériaux, in Lyotard’s
analysis of anamnesis and hypomnesis on the basis of the notions of
breaching, scanning and passing, The Inhuman renders unthinkable.

Les Immatériaux, as I have said, set the scene for Lyotard’s thesis on Kant, the
relations between the four Critiques, and the impossibility of overcoming what
Lyotard called their differend – which is a correlate of différance.

This interpretation of Kant constitutes the real issue of what, in 1979, Lyotard
described as the “postmodern“ condition – which I, some 30 years later, under-
stand as being, rather, a techno-logical, organo-logical and pharmaco-logical

This discourse of the differend posits that the cognitive is never enough, and
argues that the didactic cannot bear witness to the differend, where the witness
is a singularity that cannot be reduced and where this irreducibility is that of
the figural. And this discourse is extended in The Inhuman into a discourse on
technics – and on a technics omnipresent in Les Immatériaux that in my view
Lyotard was unable to think other than as a deceptive machine attesting to the
“postmodern condition“ – as that which leads to rationalization, as Adorno and
Horkheimer and then Habermas refer to or describe it after Max Weber. 27 But
confronted with this rationalization, Lyotard concludes that nothing can be

27 Max Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, trans. Talcott Parsons
(London: Allen and Unwin, 1930); Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno, Dialectic of
Enlightenment: Philosophical Fragments, trans. Edmund Jephcott (Stanford: Stanford Uni-
versity Press, 2002); Jürgen Habermas, “Technology and Science as ‘Ideology’”, Toward a
Rational Society, trans. Jeremy J. Shapiro (Boston: Beacon Press, 1970), p. 81–121.
154 30 Years after Les Immatériaux

Nothing can be done because no unification is possible for the differend, nor
for the One, and so on. No unitive synthesis is possible. And hence there is no
possibility of making or inscribing a difference of fact and law, in the sense of a
subjective and unifying principle of differentiation.

Unification, however, does occur, and it does so, precisely, techno-logically – as

a techno-logical synthesis that is the condition of the ana-mnesic synthesis;
that is, of writing, and not as resistance, but rather as invention; that is, as the
après-coup that constitutes the second moment of the doubly epokhal redou-
bling as a new process of transindividuation, constituting a new therapeutic of
this pharmakon to which Stephen Hawking, Stuart Russell, Max Tegmark and
Frank Wilczek refer without realizing it.

As for the notion that the second moment cannot take place due to the speed
of a pharmakon that operates at the speed of light – that is, as automaton
and absolute pharmakon – this is what in States of Shock I tried to show is an
ideological fable that must be relentlessly combated. This question of speed
requires us to think completely differently, and this includes, precisely,
thinking the pharmakon as such – which is also to say, in its therapeutic
positivity. But all this has become an obvious fact in relation to which we are
obviously still very impoverished, and for this reason it calls upon us with the
greatest urgency: all this can thus also mean we sink into deep melancholy,
regardless of how “intelligent“ we are purportedly becoming.

Postmodernity would be the end of the emancipatory possibility and of

“narratives“ affirming and realizing a state of law: if it is true that rational
knowledge is the capacity to decide this difference that is law within a state
of fact, then this amounts to the problem that knowledge has become a
commodity and is performatively submitted to a factual systemic constraint
that dissolves in advance any extra-performative legitimacy (in the sense that
Lyotard gives to “performative“, a sense that never quite seems clear, but that
can clearly not be reduced to the Austinian definition, nor to the exegesis on
this proposed by Derrida).

As for the differentiation of law within fact, this is an extremely timely ques-
tion – as we will soon see in relation to “big data“, that is, high-performance
computing applied to massive data sets. And here, we must resume the
reading of Kant via Religion within the Bounds of Bare Reason, 28 in order to
recall that such a re-reading today, that is, in the epoch of language machines,
is possible only through a re-definition of the schematism on the basis of this
immaterial hyper-material that is tertiary retention, as literal tertiary retention

28 Immanuel Kant, Religion within the Bounds of Bare Reason, trans. Werner S. Pluhar
(Indianapolis: Cambridge, 2009).
The Shadow of the Sublime 155

as well as digital tertiary retention, but also as analogue tertiary retention –

these three retentional types constituting what in Technics and Time, 2 I call
orthothetic hypomneses. And at this point I would like to recall my analysis of
these questions in Technics and Time, 3:

In dismissing this retentional fabric of the originary constituting of time,

of what he calls the “ownmost time“ of Dasein, and through his opposition
to the “time of preoccupation“ of the They or the One, under the pretext
that tertiary retention is also the material support for the calculation
and measurement of time, Heidegger is prevented from engaging a true
critique of either Kant or Husserl: he does precisely the same thing he
accuses Kant of doing.

If Kant was not able to detect this contradiction, in which he attempts to

call the world back to an a priori principle, which is his contradiction –
which shows that it is not possible for any flux of consciousness, even that
of Kant himself, to respect his unifying principles, even when they have
been formalized by that consciousness itself – this is, as Philonenko points

the result of his conception of space, which he conceives as the frame

within which the world will lay itself out; in other words, the Kantian
subject has no originary relation to a world, but only to a space; he is
originarily subject-without-world; it is because he has a space that
he can have a world, and not because he has a world that he can
have a space. Consequently, if space logically precedes the world and
conditions its dimensions, the principle that allows the operation of
an a priori distinction in space – the sense of left and right – will also
allow me to operate a posteriori distinctions in the world. It can thus
be seen that the foundation of the Kantian analysis is at the same time its
contradiction: it is the apriority of space, and yet it is nothing other than
this apriority that is brought into question through the critique of the
Kantian principle of orientation in space. The true a priori, as the need
for a memory of any object’s position clearly shows, is not space in the
Kantian sense, but being-in-the-world.

But in fact, to have a world can be Dasein’s spatiality only because this
in-the-world-ness is itself the in-the-world-ness of the temporality that is
Dasein. Spatiality is the in-the-world-ness of Dasein. And Dasein’s in-the-
world-ness is first and foremost, as the already-there, its temporality. Thus
Dasein’s spatiality is its temporality. In other words, temporality must
itself be worldly in a sense different from that which Heidegger accords
to this qualifier when referring to “innerworldly“ temporality, but which
operates through this “innerworldliness“ so that the in-the-world-ness
156 30 Years after Les Immatériaux

of the temporality of Dasein, as having-to-be its time, weaves it (Dasein’s

temporality) as what conditions its synthesis. 29

None of this is problematized by Lyotard, even at the very moment he dis-

cusses the question of the unitive synthesis in Kant, or when he makes
reference to the “immaterials“ that are language machines; and this seems to
me, today, highly problematic. Because it is this that constitutes the question
of the im-matériaux, which is the question that, between the immaterial and
the material, requires us to exceed the opposition between materialism and
idealism, and to revisit the notion of “objects invested with spirit,“ 30 notions
of hau, mana, 31 totem, of categorization in Durkheim’s sense, 32 and that can
be thought only as what, exceeding the opposition of form and matter, and
as hyper-matter, constitutes a tertiary retention forming the immateriau of all
Weltgeschichtlichkeit, so to speak.

Les Immatériaux did set the scene for digital tertiary retention, but what it
lacked was a hyper-materialist conception – a conception not postmodern, but
ultramodern. Beyond the primacy of time over space (as internal sense) or of
space over time (as Umwelt constituting a sphere or a Lichtung), there lies the
question of speed; and, beyond this question, that of the relationship between
automatization and dis-automatization – of automatization in the service of

In The Differend, there is no One that would be reason. Do we therefore con-

clude that the reduction of knowledge to informational commodity would then
be either possible or acceptable? About this reduction, Lyotard suggests we
must “resist“. I believe that we must, on the contrary, invent. We must invent
a pharmacological critique (for the duplicity of the pharmacological situ-
ation is what the default of the one really means), a pharmacological critique
that calls for an organology both theoretical and practical, that is: inventing
and configuring its instruments according to the therapies and therapeutics
that are the anamnesic transindividuation processes wherein disciplines are
formed. This would be an organology that instantiates the differend – each
time differently – through the epochs of tertiary retention and through the two
moments of the doubly epokhal redoubling.

29 Stiegler, Technics and Time, 3, p. 161–162, translation modified.

30 Edmund Husserl, Ideas Pertaining to a Pure Phenomenology and to a Phenomenological
Philosophy, trans. F. Kersten (Dordrecht: Kluwer, 1989), p. 250. And see Bernard Stiegler,
What Makes Life Worth Living: On Pharmacology, trans. Daniel Ross (Cambridge: Polity
Press, 2013), p. 72–74.
31 On mana and hau, see Marcel Mauss, A General Theory of Magic, trans. Robert Brain
(London and New York: Routledge, 1972), p. 133–134; and Marcel Mauss, The Gift, trans.
W. D. Halls (London: Routledge: 1990), p. 1–12.
32 Emile Durkheim, The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life, trans. Joseph Ward Swain
(New York: Macmillan, 1965), p. 21–33.
The Shadow of the Sublime 157

But there can be no organology, nor any pharmacology, without a new

critique of political economy, and this must also be a positive critique of The
German Ideology 33 – of the way it outlines an organology, and of its non-
pharmacological character.

To look back in this way at the critical aftermath of the contemporary doubly
epokhal redoubling, where Lyotard would in the final reckoning have borne wit-
ness to the first moment, we must re-read those pages of Discourse, Figure in
which Lyotard raises the question of writing. For if, in The Inhuman, Lyotard
opposes writing to telegraphy – and it is this opposition that constitutes the
regression leading to the “philosophy of resistance“ – in Discourse, Figure he
apprehends writing from an extremely fruitful perspective, in relation to what
I myself analyse as a retentional system:

Writing, unlike speech, institutes a dimension of visibility, of sensory

spatiality … [T]he discourse of signification haunted from within by the
deconstructions specific to Mallarmean stylistics [is] affected in the
exteriority of its (graphic) signifier by the same “primary“ spatial play. 34

One might then be able to reinvest anamnesis in terms of retentional systems

older than drive-based systems. But if this is a site for construction, it must
wait for another occasion. And our goal must be invention, conceived as an
individuation at once psychic, collective and technical, where individuation is
defined essentially as a technical and technological situation in which tekhnē
and logos must not be opposed to each other, nor conflated, but where logos
must be treated as an historical modality of the transindividuation of tekhnē
qua process of grammatization – and in a situation that, today, produces a
process of generalized proletarianization, a situation that is a matter of over-
coming through the invention of a new libidinal economy.

Translated from the French by Daniel Ross.

33 Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The German Ideology, no translator listed (Moscow:
Progress Publishers, 1976).
34 Jean-François Lyotard, Discourse, Figure, p. 63, and 482, translation modified.
Exhibiting and Thinking:
An Anamnesis of the

Anne Elisabeth Sejten

Jean-François Lyotard’s extraordinary exhibition Les Immatériaux was a com-

plex, exciting cultural manifestation, and even 30 years later it is not hard
to recall the special, joyful and intense atmosphere that surrounded the
exhibition. Once it opened, the large gallery on the fifth floor of the Centre
Pompidou was transformed into a laboratory that invited museum visitors to
experience the arts, technology and philosophy as something tangible and
corporal, yet also as highly intellectual and ambiguous. Entering the dark
labyrinth pre-organised by the philosopher, one could not help but decon-
struct and reconstruct a fragmented lesson on philosophy. For a moment,
philosophy joined the public sphere on surprisingly philosophical premises.

Of course, this exhibition experience went beyond ordinary philosophy

teaching. Les Immatériaux was conceived for neither amateur nor profes-
sional philosophers, but for the Centre Pompidou’s broad, general public.
Nevertheless, the philosophical agenda was quite obvious. Lyotard had just
published Le Differend, a book of philosophy which, he claimed, espoused
the “philosophy of sentences” upon which Les Immatériaux was built. The
exhibition’s concrete composition also rested upon a linguistic infrastructure
– on the communication model of linguistic pragmatics – which again was a
means of creating a Wittgensteinian playground for various linguistic families
and enunciation instances, themselves incompatible and lacking a common
meta-language that might summarise and articulate them as a whole. Lyotard
chose five words to create zones of inquiry and physical arrangement:
“maternity” (maternité), corresponding to the function of the sender; “material”
(matériel), corresponding to the instance of the receiver; “material” (matériau),
corresponding to the support of the message (the hardware that moves the
160 30 Years after Les Immatériaux

message); “matrix” (matrice), corresponding to the code of the message; and

“matter” (matière), corresponding to the referent (what it is about). Each word
focused on a diversity of questions: “From where?”, “To where?”, “How?”,
“By means of what?”, and “Concerning what?” On the basic level of senders,
receivers and codes, the entire exhibition was directly engaged in the study of
media, questioning man in his relationship of troubled author to the materials
of the technological, postmodern world.

In the same spirit, Kantian concepts implicitly inform the “sites”, which
should be considered as particular, autonomous spaces, something more
(or less) than mere stops on a one-way journey through the exhibition. How
the sites were organised was reminiscent of the landscape or mapping that
Lyotard liked to draw when it came to Kant and the third Critique (the Critique
of Judgement), insofar as reflective judgement embodies the critical activity
itself, an activity of establishing rules for different and specific uses of reason
incommensurable with one another, and therefore demanding a rigorous
demarcation of their respective realms of validity.

Such traces of Lyotard’s horizons of thought might in fact be said to function

as the transcendentaux of Les Immatériaux. The exhibited items and sites
would then seem to be permeated by two kinds of immateriality: one at a
technological level, pointing to the immaterials they are made of (which also
includes the inventive scientific mind); one at a more philosophical, con-
ceptual level of transcendentals, pointing to Lyotard’s idea about them – or,
more precisely, his staging of them. Being one of the original features of Les
Immatériaux, this duality remains a subject of inquiry when revisiting the
exhibition so many years later. How were thinking and exhibiting, philosophy
and exhibition space actually brought together? How could thinking and
exhibiting possibly meet on an equal footing? How could one exhibit
thinking at all? “Thinking” apparently seems to pass through “exhibiting” in
a movement from inside out, and does not inform the exhibition from the
outside in. The organisers’ aim was not to be pedagogical, but highly exper-
imental; they demanded an intellectual effort on the part of the visitors. Even
though the visitors were not meant to be philosophers, their sensory and
intellectual involvement was required. But how did thinking and reflection,
as specifically mental, immaterial activities, and join “the immaterials” of
the exhibition? And how should we understand the only discourse that was
explicitly assumed by the organisers, which pointed towards a changing
condition of society as such, presenting the exhibition as “postmodern

1 Jean-François Lyotard, “Les Immatériaux. Un entretien avec Jean-Francois Lyotard”

(with Jacques Saur and Philippe Bidaine), CNAC Magazine, no. 26, 1985, p. 13. Also, in
the opening words of the exhibition catalogue, the director of the Centre Georges
Pompidou, Jean Maheu, evoked the “dramaturgy” of a “changing epoch” while speaking
Exhibiting and Thinking 161

In addressing these questions I propose to discuss more thoroughly how the

almost hidden philosophical (transcendental) framework of Les Immatériaux
was activated – or even performed – as an exhibition, revisiting “the post-
modern” in particular as a major issue. Considering the many attempts
Lyotard made after the publication of his 1979 The Postmodern Condition
to explain and specify what he had intended by launching the debate, the
exhibition could be seen as taking part in an ongoing anamnesis of the post-
modern. From that perspective, Les Immatériaux concerns the issue of what
had kept being forgotten in the debate on the postmodern.

The Transcendentals of Les Immatériaux

While the term “transcendental” may appear inaccurate, it is more than
an amusing play on words that makes “transcendentaux” rhyme with
“Immatériaux”; it is, once again, a hint at Lyotard’s signature. During the 1980s,
he had committed himself to a close reading of Kant. Both in Le Differend and
at his weekly seminar at Paris VIII, Lyotard insisted on interpreting the Kantian
project backwards, almost word for word, starting from the third Critique. And
this re-reading of Kant, at its very source, was not only a matter of aesthetics
– even though Lyotard’s interest in the sublime might initially have pushed
him to undertake it. Rather, Lyotard was captivated by the destabilizing effect
of the third Critique, and by Kant’s courage in reopening his critical project,
re-examining, problematising and clarifying the fragile foundation of what he
had previously achieved by establishing and separating, back to back, the two
major faculties of man: understanding and reason. Because at the bottom of
cognitive reason and practical reason, Kant rehabilitated reflective judgement,
die reflektierende Urteilskraft. This rather complicated use of reason, which
lacks any jurisdiction prior to its proceedings, thus has to establish, afterwards
(après-coup), its own rules, reflexively in each particular case.

Lyotard insists on meeting Kant in this vulnerable, exposed – exhibited –

position, in which the determining judgement finally has to step aside, rec-
ognising that it owes its solidity to an anterior activity of the mind, namely
the reflective judgement, which cannot claim the same legitimacy, because
it has to proceed without concepts. Logic is not an option here, which is
why reflective judgement has to be deduced in an aesthetic context, as it
is grounded on a feeling only, the feeling of the right adjustment between
imagination and reason. Of course, there would be no philosophy without
concepts. As Adorno stated in Negative Dialectics, “thinking is identifying”. 2 It is
impossible to think without concepts, and philosophical concepts necessarily

about “postmodernity”. See Album et Inventaire (Paris: Editions du Centre Georges

Pompidou, 1985), p. 3.
2 Theodor W. Adorno, Negative Dialektik (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1966), p. 17.
(“Denken heißt identifizieren.”)
162 30 Years after Les Immatériaux

subsume the particular by means of universal categories. But following the

very same commitment as that of Adorno, Lyotard dedicates his thinking to
what does not disappear in the concept without leaving traces of resistance.
He wants to bear witness to what he calls “the unpresentable” or “the figural”,
just as Adorno spoke about “the non-identical”. 3 So, if thinking essentially
equals identifying and determining conceptual thinking, the non-determinable
should nevertheless be the horizon of philosophy, its instigation and secret
aim. With their polyphonic and heterogeneous space, “the Immaterials” offer
a similar springboard for experimentation on the very edge of the exhibition’s
conceptual entries, and are designed to make visitors sensitive without getting
them caught in stigmatising conceptualisation. At the same instant that we
are invited to approach what an exhibited object might represent, signify or
challenge as “immaterial”, by marking it conceptually, the conceptualising
activity of our minds should somehow be marked negatively by the affects
that it causes.

For Lyotard, all the Kantian negative determinations of the aesthetic

judgement of taste – being without interest, proceeding without concepts,
having no other aim than its own purely formal finality “without purpose” –
stand as an entry into the realm of philosophy as such; they have to do with
the conditions of possibility for critical thinking. This is also why Lyotard was
always emphasising the transcendental level of Kant’s criticism instead of
dismissing it. By exploring the limits and conditions of knowledge and reason,
Kant certainly deals with the conditions of possibility, which are a priori to
any empirical reality; but he does so, not in order to escape reality, but rather
in order to grasp those unpresentable – thus immaterial – mental structures
which make thinking possible.

Les Immatériaux simultaneously exhibits and builds upon such a tran-

scendental framework. The Kantian horizon serves as more than just an
external frame of reference towards the exhibition: with Les Immatériaux,
rather, Kant becomes operational. Under the transcendental authority of
reflective judgement, Kantian concepts such as the sublime and the sensus
communis migrate into the organisation of Les Immatériaux and work there
as a kind of transcendentaux. Les Immatériaux does not present a display of
artworks and other objects accompanied by some philosophical explanation.
It would be truer to argue that it embraces a transcendental dramaturgy,
outlining the conditions of possibility in order to generate sensations in the
spectator. The aim is to activate a sense of awareness of that which is not
yet defined, or that is even undefinable. It is a matter of creating reactions,
of generating intellectual and emotional attention. Les Immatériaux was
philosophical in a truly experimental way, less because a philosopher
exhibited his philosophy than because the exhibition aimed at making mental

3 Ibid., p. 152.
Exhibiting and Thinking 163

activity possible among those who walked down the labyrinth on their own,
simultaneously transforming the exhibition into the interface of their random

Pursuing the idea of this intimate relationship between thinking and

exhibiting, it would not be wrong to say that Les Immatériaux was well-situ-
ated at the fifth floor of the Centre Pompidou, which was normally devoted
to temporary art exhibitions; for the exhibition was precisely an artwork, a
Gesamtkunstwerk.4 The exhibited items derived from all possible domains of
knowledge and everyday life. Besides the artworks – among others, those
emblematic of Giovanni Anselmo, Marcel Duchamp, Dan Flavin, Yves Klein,
Joseph Kosuth, François Morellet, Philippe Thomas and Andy Warhol – visitors
met a diverse range of technological and scientific documentation and objects:
musical scores, architectural drawings, projections of photos and films, music
videos, robots, and almost futuristic high-tech devices that were the precursor
of interactive communication, anticipating today’s social media – especially
in the section called “Épreuves d’écriture”, which was displaying a computer-
mediated discussion among 26 participants (including Jacques Derrida, Daniel
Buren and Michel Butor) of 50 terms proposed by Lyotard. Les Immatériaux had
indeed little to do with traditional or even advanced art exhibitions, nor did
the organisers adopt a documentary format. The exhibition was nonetheless
all that at the same time: documental and artistic and almost an amusement
park where the spectator could try different attractions. This hybridisation of
the exhibition genre contributed to creating a blurring effect, an uncomfort-
able unreadability that almost certainly characterises all art.

It might also be at this global level that the concept of “the sublime” makes
sense. The sublime did not primarily work as a thematic guideline for Les
Immatériaux, nor as an art-historical reference, but at a performative level;
and like all performances, this again points to the visitor, who was solicited
by her senses in a troubling way that one might compare to the sublime and
its twofold structure of pleasure and displeasure. The iconic works of art that
were exhibited – even those by Jacques Monory and Marcel Duchamp, about
whom Lyotard wrote extensively – were not chosen for their possible aes-
thetic dialogue with the sublime. Somewhat surprisingly, Lyotard stressed that
Duchamp’s aesthetics had nothing to do with the sublime that it left behind. 5
The sublime instead concerns the exhibition as a whole, and has to do with
its general opacity and resistance to being perceived in a simple way. If the
exhibition was in fact difficult to read, to decipher, it was partly due to its fluid
and immaterial organisation of space, by means of which human perception

4 Lyotard, interviewed by Bernard Blistène, confirmed his artistic ambition with the
exhibition: “I’m particularly concerned with turning the exhibition itself into a work of
art.” “Les Immatériaux: A Conversation with Jean-François Lyotard”, Flash Art, no. 121,
March 1985, p. 8.
5 Ibid., p. 2.
164 30 Years after Les Immatériaux

came under pressure. This disruption of perception made it possible, however,

for the visitor to experience – perhaps even joyfully – something at the very
level of bodily perception, without really becoming readable in terms of sign,
sense and signification.

Thus, perception was deliberately made problematic, interesting and shifting;

it depended on how the different sites addressed different senses, intensified
by the soundtrack. One major tool for creating potentially sublime experiences
was the grey metallic curtains. Enabling a fluid and immaterial organisation
of space, the partition material challenged traditional ways of defining things.
Suspended from the ceiling to the floor, these unsteady, woven, thin metallic
walls created a blocked transparency, more or less opaque, according to the
lighting. In fact the variety of ways in which the curtains were lit allowed the
distance of the gaze to vary, but without being prescriptive, since many of the
sites had intersections that allowed visitors to walk in a number of different

The dramaturgical setting created a sort of theatricality of Les Immatériaux, but

essentially from the visitor’s perspective. If the exhibition was conceived as
theatre – even, according to the first site of the exhibition, as “Theatre of the
non-body” – this theatre, again, was basically conceived as a performance that
engaged the visitor in his or her entirety. A striking example on the “material”
track is that of the site “Musician despite himself”, where microphones, sonars
and computers translated every movement visitors made into music, the
sound made audible by the transmitter circuit and headphones. This set-up
also indicated that the eye should no longer be the sole conduit of perception
in the exhibition experience. In the exhibition catalogue, Lyotard vindicates
postmodern space-time as a radically new way of organising an exhibition,
explicitly breaking with the traditional organisation of art exhibitions that
accorded an exclusive privilege to the eye for centuries.6

In achieving this ambition, the most radical ingredient was perhaps the
soundtrack, which changed from one radio zone to another as the visitors
walked around the exhibition space. Completely void of commentaries of any
kind, the soundtrack contained acoustic presences, texts by authors such as
Beckett, Artaud, Proust, Borges, Mallarmé and Zola, but also by theoreticians,
philosophers and scientists like Barthes, Bachelard, Blanchot, Baudrillard,
Virilio and Lyotard himself – voices that could thus take part in what might
be at stake in each specific site. The texts were read aloud in a neutral way,
deliberately avoiding any interpretation of the words spoken. These real,
immaterial works were actually nothing but voices, yet they in fact seemed
material, corporeal, like music entering the flesh, challenging the presence
of absences. This context may also afford us an understanding of Lyotard’s

6 See Les Immatériaux catalogue, Album, p. 19.

Exhibiting and Thinking 165

increasing interest in Malraux, to whom he devoted a philosophical biography

ten years later. Essentially, Lyotard tried to rethink Malraux’s old question
of “the voices of silence” in terms of his own ideas about making visible,
audible, and thus thinkable, that which cannot be seen, heard or thought. That
paradox also constitutes the inner structure of what Lyotard associated with
the concept of the sublime – and, accordingly, with the attempt to bear wit-
ness to the unpresentable (at this point he is following, as noted, Adorno).

In the end, there seems to be no real consensus about what these

“Immaterials” should stand for. They are indeed made ambiguous and con-
tradictory, with the only intention to call for attention and become in act,
as Paul Valéry would have put it. “The Immaterials” demanded that they be
acted upon by visitors. It was a matter of engendering a state of mind, where
sensibility, affection and reflection were mobilised in an open, free, non-
determined play, not necessarily as an activity, but as pure receptiveness,
sensitiveness. It was a matter of being able to receive something without
defining it. This openness and indetermination brings us back to reflective
judgement and, more specifically, to the sensus communis that Kant deduces
in the fourth moment of the judgement of taste. Lyotard interprets the sensus
communis in a restrictive, purely transcendental way.7 Sensus communis is not
an empirical consensus regarding the beautiful; it has nothing to do with a
shared community, but points to a sign – or a testimony, or a promise – of
compatibility between the faculties within each subject. What makes sense
here is the mere capacity to think reflexively, which can only be considered
afterwards, as emphasised again and again by Lyotard.

This complicated concept thus points to a self-reflexivity, caused by the aes-

thetic shock that can only ever be experienced individually. Be it students
of Lyotard, regular museum visitors or random visitors of any background,
the task is the same. Les Immatériaux was meant to encourage this specific
kind of reflection, a sort of intellectual sensibility, or sensible intellectuality,
towards these heterogeneously exhibited objects that might perhaps, not
in themselves, but thanks to their complex staging, inspire a feeling of
uncertainty; an uncertainty about the aim of technological developments, and
an uncertainty about the identity of the human individual. It is at precisely
this point that the issue of the postmodern arises as a challenge that justifies
taking a closer look at the rather complicated philosophical agenda assumed
by the postmodern in Lyotard.

7 Jean-François Lyotard, “Sensus Communis,” Le cahier du collège international de

philosophie, no. 3 (1987), p. 71–74, and Lyotard, Leçons sur l’analytique du sublime (Paris:
Galilée, 1991), p. 31–33.
166 30 Years after Les Immatériaux

Les Immatériaux: an Exhibition of Postmodernity?

On the one hand, postmodernity happened to be the only discursive element
that informed the exhibition thematically, giving it a strong symbolic value.
On the other hand, postmodernity was not exhibited in any representative
way. To be sure, the mayor of Paris, Jacques Chirac, had turned down Pres-
ident François Mitterrand’s request that Paris celebrate the bicentennial of the
French Revolution with a universal exhibition, which is why Les Immatériaux
can be seen as an ironic comment to both politicians; in other words, as a
sort of universal exposition of postmodernity. Anticipating the exhibition that
would not take place in 1989, on the other hand, Les Immatériaux indirectly
became the symbol of the end of universal exhibitions and a symbol of their

Nonetheless, the general question about how the relationship between man
and nature, or materials, was “affected by the revival of new technologies”
was indeed, from the very beginning, subject to a postmodern framing. In an
interview Lyotard gave on Les Immatériaux when the exhibition was still being
planned, he clearly states that the entire exhibition was meant to address
our “anxiety about the postmodern condition”. 8 And his reply to the question
about what postmodernism could “finally” be said to be confirms his commit-
ment to that question: “My work, in fact, is directed to finding out what that is,
but I still don’t know. This is a discussion that’s only just beginning. It’s the way
it was for the Age of Enlightenment: the discussion will be abandoned before it
ever reaches a conclusion”.9

This remark is rather prophetic, the question of the postmodern having

probably already caused Lyotard more trouble than philosophical scrutiny,
and he would indeed ultimately have to abandon the postmodern before
coming to terms with it. Still, it is worth noting how Lyotard’s attachment
to the postmodern was heavily inscribed in the initial ideas underlying the
exhibition. Les Immatériaux somehow elaborates on the postmodern. Indeed,
the postmodern might even refer to the “missing signified” for “the entirety of
the exhibition”.10 At any rate, it is in a vocabulary which combines the post-
modern and the sublime that Lyotard connects Les Immatériaux to the “chagrin
that surrounds the end of the modern age as well as the feeling of jubilation
that’s connected with the appearance of something new”.11

These comments recall the philosophical work that Lyotard called anamnesis,
a term he had borrowed from Freud and made use of to describe situations

8 “Les Immatériaux: A Conversation with Jean-François Lyotard,” (with Bernard Blistène)

Flash Art, no. 121 (March 1985), p. 10.
9 Ibid.
10 Ibid.
11 Ibid.
Exhibiting and Thinking 167

in which the philosophical community was affected by discomforting feelings.

His 1988 book on Heidegger (Heidegger and “the Jews” ), for example, was
presented as an anamnesis, by means of which Lyotard dismissed the bad
alternative between “accusations” and “apology” that characterised the
vehement French Heidegger debate at that time. How could a thought devoted
entirely to the theme of oblivion, the oblivion of being, forget and keep silent
about relegating a whole people to oblivion? Something non-forgettable is
forgotten, over and over again. Even though the Heidegger disciples already
knew, even though they were aware of the problem of Nazism in Heidegger,
a disquieting feeling remained, and Lyotard insisted on that disquietude as
fundamental. The postmodern debate might have needed a similar treatment,
a kind of anamnesis, elaborating on what had gone wrong in that debate – that
is to say, what kept being forgotten.

The publication of The Postmodern Condition in 1979 made Lyotard world-

famous and many people began reading him at this particular point; which
is somewhat ironic given that The Postmodern Condition happens to be the
least representative of his works. Postmodernism can likewise be consid-
ered an event. Something new had finally happened within philosophy and
the humanities – not, of course, without dissention, and the media did not
hesitate to dramatise the event, often by opposing French irrationalism to
German fidelity to the Enlightenment. The battle of postmodernism was on.
Considering Lyotard’s attitude towards the Heidegger affair, just drawing
the lines of battle should be a warning. What had become of the event,
philosophically speaking? Precisely the feeling that the debate had failed to
address the issue of the postmodern – and failed painfully – demanded a rein-
vestigation of the postmodern.

Initially, the term postmodern addressed the changing status of knowledge in

philosophy in highly developed societies (the subheading of The Postmodern
Condition is A Report on Knowledge). On the one hand, Lyotard stresses the
impact of informatics (and information science) on knowledge. The capacity
to store an ever-increasing amount of data necessarily affects knowledge
and, accordingly, challenges crucial notions such as those of history, memory
and time. Les Immatériaux continued to explore that perspective. On the
other hand, the provocative thesis on the decline of the grand narratives
contributed to a postmodern definition of knowledge. From Hegel to Marx,
a recitative structure works at the core of the philosophy of history, Lyotard
argues. The discourses of knowledge issuing from this tradition are narratives,
because, although laying claim to scientific stringency, their truth claims are
supported by a narrative which, scientifically speaking, is not knowledge at
all. They simply tell a “good story” – the story, for example, about the progress
of humanity towards an ever-better society. When a telos of this nature is
hidden in the discourse of knowledge, this discourse can hardly give proof
168 30 Years after Les Immatériaux

of its validity (as scientific knowledge) by pleading the scientific criteria of

truth or falsity. The idea of a predestined humanity cannot be proved; it is
only, as Lyotard later shows with Kant, a universal “Idea”, inconceivable to the
cognitive reason of history.

It is probably at this far too “famous” point of the grand narratives that we
have to remain careful. According to the debates on postmodernity, the
failure of the grand narratives of legitimation became the whole crux of the
matter. How, for example, does one adopt a position towards this decline,
now an object of celebration and affirmation, now an object of lamentation
and depression? Focusing exclusively on the issue of the grand narratives,
the debate inevitably disintegrated into opinions and mainstreams – in a
word, into ideology – without much attention being paid to the fact that the
experience of delegitimation was not new, but rather immanent in modernity.
When, for example, Lyotard (again following Adorno) refers to the name
“Auschwitz”, he wants to pay attention to a “sign of history”, which indicates
how much Western history – “our” history – is apparently inconsistent with
the modern project of emancipation. In a certain way, real history, atrociously
real, has denied the possibility of a human history already. The radically new
in the postmodern situation, as Lyotard explains in The Postmodern Condition,
was that, by means of a performative self-legitimising gearing, technological
development and science had become adherent to the critique of the
philosophy of history to eventuate its final fall.

Thus, if postmodernity does not represent a new age, but rather repeats
essential features of modernity, it points to a different way of legitimating that
gives rise to concern, and that concern was evidently shared by the organisers
of Les Immatériaux. The whole idea of a subtle change within legitimating
processes clearly motivated the organisation and specific site designs, insofar
as the exhibition was meant to make the visitor experience new technologies
in ambiguous ways. Fascination, uncertainty, anxiety, if not disgust, are
associated with all the various site names: “Site of the second skin”, “Site of
the angel”, “Site of the blown-up body”, “Site of the undiscoverable surface”,
“Site of the bodiless painter”, “Site of the invisible man”, “Site of the shadow
of shadow” etc. With Les Immatériaux Lyotard implicitly delivers a challenge to
be sensitive – and this in an almost auditory sense – towards something that
more than ever is silenced by the postmodern techno-reality. Regardless of
how we address Les Immatériaux, the postmodern reference keeps cropping
up, but becomes more and more complex and ambiguous. That is why we
must risk, even 30 years later, an anamnesis of the postmodern.
Exhibiting and Thinking 169

Postmodernism, Postmodernity, the Postmodern:

Which One to Choose?
A reconstruction of the postmodern certainly requires a global approach
and a more retrospective cross-reading of Lyotard. The Postmodern Condition
seems to prefer the sociological and historical aspect to the philosophical – a
point of contention to which Lyotard was the first to concede and to renounce.
In subsequent years corrections, addendums and elaborations characterise
his attempt to defend the importance of the postmodern question, to rescue
it, even though the term had already been abused. As mentioned above, The
Differend, published in 1983, contains this original “philosophy of sentences”
that rephrases the problem of legitimation that was at the core of the book
on the postmodern condition. In 1986 Lyotard published various essays
attempting to outline the implications of the postmodern question in The
Postmodern Explained for Children. The provocative title, it should be noted,
embraces more than irony. The appeal to children implies that only those who
have not excluded childhood, including its aspect of indetermination, from
the supposedly self-enclosed sphere of adulthood, may come to an under-
standing of the postmodern. In 1988 another collection of essays appeared in
The Inhuman, which again takes up, though more indirectly, the postmodern
question, this time with a straight-faced attack on French neo-humanism.12
What these essays share is a sharp demarcation whereby Lyotard forbids
any ideological expropriation of the concept of the postmodern. One could
say that he separates the postmodern from postmodernism as well as from

On the one hand, the postmodern is not identical to postmodernism. Post-

modernism avoidably infers an “-ism”, which here points to a trend within the
arts and – especially in this case – within architecture. Architectural post-
modernism may be defined as eclecticism – an assemblage of fragments of
style from various periods. The final work of art (of architecture) appears
as “quotations” from earlier periods and hence as a paradoxical stating of
the present, which is incapable of inventing a new “grand” style. However,
a careless use of the past might run contrary to this exercise of memory,
which Lyotard, drawing on Freud, designates anamnesis. The anamnesis
instead refers to an interminable labour of memory in the act of elaborating
something that is permanently blocked. Anamnesis seeks an inaccessible past.
In this sense it might not be surprising if Lyotard condemns postmodernism
insofar as postmodernists, architects, rhetoricians or others act as if the
past were accessible; in reality, they are only repeating defence mech-
anisms towards resistant moments, which cannot be repeated but ask for

12 Victor Farias’s 1987 book, Heidegger, instigated the fierce French Heidegger debate.
170 30 Years after Les Immatériaux

“elaboration”, i.e. to be “worked through” in conformity with the epistemology

of the Freudian Durcharbeitung.

On the other hand, the postmodern is not the same as postmodernity. The
postmodern does not essentially mark a new epoch coming after modernity.
Even though some explanations concerning Les Immatériaux seem to indicate
a change in society, Lyotard refutes the idea of an epoch-making change of
paradigm. The postmodern change instead inscribes itself in modernity. As
he emphasised during the same period in the mid-1980s – specifically in the
important “Answering the Question: What is Postmodernism?”13 – the post-
modern is not to be situated at the end of modernity, but at the source of
modernity, which fundamentally reveals the discovery of the “little bit of reality
in reality”.14 Issuing from this tradition, the postmodern communicates with an
essential aspect of modernity: the lack of foundation, the lack of grounding.

What are we left with after getting rid of the most prevailing biases of the
postmodern? Not much, really. One of the difficulties of the postmodern
probably consists in its duality. The postmodern seems to concern system
as well as resistance. A basically descriptive approach refers to technological
and social development, to what we could call system. But the feeling of a
postmodern situation simultaneously manifests, although more implicitly,
something that resists system. These two poles, system and resistance, are
intertwined. For what the system cannot absorb and, therefore, excludes, the
pole of resistance tries to restore and elaborate. Once again, as in Freudian
anamnesis, elaboration happens to be the essence of resistance.

The complicity of this unlikely pair – system/resistance – is central to grasping

the philosophical depth in Lyotard’s postmodern. In arguing for the duality
of the postmodern, I will adhere in particular to Lyotard’s 1988 book The
Inhuman, whose essays outline two kinds of inhumanities. And, seen from this
later point of view, the postmodern must be thought of from an axis passing
through two essentially different inhumanities, which were indeed also
addressed by Les Immatériaux. The first one implies the necessity of seeking
refuge and resistance in the other one. By virtue of this internal tension there
appears an almost ethical, if not political, aspect that takes place in, and
vitalises, the postmodern.

13 It is worth noting that the term chosen by Lyotard in the original French title was “post-
modern” and not “postmodernism”: Le postmoderne expliqué aux enfants (Paris: Galilée,
14 “Réponse à la question: qu’est-ce que le postmoderne”, op. cit., p. 25 (“la découverte du
peu de réalité de la réalité”).
Exhibiting and Thinking 171

The Inhumanity of System

The first inhumanity could be said to concern system. It refers to an inhuman
order, where man happens to occupy a minor place. In post-industrial society
the discrepancy between system and man has in fact become more and more
visible. Increasing control within the sciences and technologies, paradoxically,
has not resulted in greater human autonomy, but rather in loss of control.
The current economic crisis is but a recent example of these fatal dynamics.
The postmodern condition as reality, as situation, actualises – in the most
literal meaning of the word – a complexification in which humankind is only
one subordinated link.15 Performance, differentiation and complexity cover an
inhuman condition that we were once bold enough to call progress and devel-
opment. In this sense, Lyotard argues, system’s inhumanity, in the name of
Progress, is about to be realised.

This accomplishment is indeed a question of time, and is very much actualised

by the new computer technologies that were massively present in – and placed
in question by – Les Immatériaux. What is left when the storing of data reaches
the point of saturation, asks Lyotard, which is a question that also haunts Les
Immatériaux. If memorisation approaches a maximum, the increasing memory
reduces the chance or risk that something not yet memorised can occur. The
saturation of data simply means the neutralisation of events. The future
subordinates the present, because, when the future is already determined
(memorised), the present loses the privilege of being a moment that cannot
be grasped in itself. The tension of the event is simply broken in that the event
is always an occurrence between a “not yet” (pas encore) of the future and
an “already no more” (déjà plus) of the past. Nothing occurs, in the sense of
the event, if everything is programmed in advance, already memorised and
saved in the computer bank. The modern project, understood as the belief in
a human future to come, paradoxically ends up as a program, in the sense of
programmed future; and this accomplished future must necessarily destroy
the last remnants of the human project that sought freedom.

Equally, invoking Leibniz’s monadology, Lyotard compares computer time to

the divine monad.16 God’s “big monad” coincides with the universe; it is con-
gruent with the universe, because even the most remote and humble corner
falls within God’s field of vision. This is the reason why realisation of the divine
monad necessarily causes a loss of human and historical time – this time
which precisely is invested by the inadequacy of individual monads and their
merely partial knowledge of the universe. As a monadological analogy, the

15 See Jean-François Lyotard, L’inhumain (Paris: Galilée, 1988), especially the “Avant-propos:
de l’humain,” p. 13, as well as the chapter entitled “Le temps, aujourd’hui,” p. 75, and 78.
16 Ibid., p. 49, and 71.
172 30 Years after Les Immatériaux

postmodern condition might resume the movement in which all the individual
monads approach the “big monad”, thus being dissolved in its perfection.

The “time-saving” nature of computers and their eventual destruction of

human historical time was probably a basic idea motivating Lyotard when he
first brought the postmodern situation up for discussion, but also when he
sketched out the exhibition design for Les Immatériaux. In contradistinction to
modernity, where the source of legitimation is displaced in the ideal future to
become present, postmodernity founds its legitimacy upon itself, upon a kind
of self-sufficiency, as if it were the “big monad”. Postmodernity does not need
ideologies, because it legitimises itself. Its horizon does not lie in the future,
but is here already. The nature of its goal is self-ensured by the performative
gearing of the system. Legitimacy, thus, is no longer a problem; the universal
project of emancipation of modernity is no longer separated from reality
as an Idea regulating moral and political actions and decisions. Instead, it is
immediately consumed by technological expansion itself.

This collapse between reality and Ideas confronts philosophy with a challenge.
For when reality no longer differs from the Ideas, metaphysics actually
disappears from the remit of philosophy. The traditional field of thinking
is now monopolised by information sciences, because they simply realise
metaphysics, outside philosophy. Metaphysics, which ought to assume an
ideal content beyond what is conceivable, becomes an inhuman reality, and
even obtains the rights of facticity.

The Inhumanity of Resistance

How can this first inhumanity, one which constitutes a challenge to philosophy,
be resisted? How can critical thinking and an attitude that deals with this logic
of inhuman development be maintained? Taking these questions seriously,
Lyotard concentrates on another inhumanity at the core of the human being
itself. If the first inhumanity, the systemic one, connotes an over-human level
of complexification, this other inhumanity points to an ontological aspect, to
the inner individual. But no preposition is adequate to situate this “inside”,
which is rather “under” or “behind” innerness. Something radically other and
estranged occupies the individual. It might be at this difficult, implacable level
that the second aspect of the postmodern can precipitate resistance.

These ideas on the second inhumanity might seem cryptic and need, in fact, to
be related to Lyotard’s understanding of childhood as such – and, in particular,
to his interest in the Freudian concept of “originary repression”. Lyotard
refutes humanism in the allegorical name of childhood. Childhood cannot be
elevated and negated in the dialectical manner of Hegel’s aufgehoben without
something being left behind. An untameable and invincible childhood remains
deeply engrained in every grown-up; it is this childhood that announces the
Exhibiting and Thinking 173

inhumanity now in question. Deep in human nature – which perhaps is not

all that human, and not all that deep – smoulders a pain, a suffering; because
civilised man, from family to state, has to endure society’s institutions.
Of course, anomalous behaviour bears witness to such immoral needs of
escaping from social conventions and social life. However, literature, the arts
and philosophy – these activities of spirit that, paradoxically, have obtained
institutional status in our society – do it as well. Lyotard interprets these
domains as vestiges of an indetermination and a childhood that grown-up life
never totally rids itself of.

Lyotard argues, in other words, against a dialectical closing of childhood.

Something does not add up. He calls it l’inaccordable17 – “the non-accordable”
– the absence of accordance. Just as when he refers to Hölderlin’s Remarks
on Oedipus (1804), saying that the beginning no longer rhymes with the end.
The end is no longer inscribed in the beginning, as in the Greek oracle. Thus,
the disharmonies of modernism replace classical harmonies. It might be
accidental that the attention being paid to the “non-accordable” resorts to a
vocabulary of music. It is, however, in fact appealing to the ear; Lyotard makes
an appeal to hearing, because the moment we have to pay attention to is
almost immaterial, unpresentable. It is only a voice calling.

Enduring this context it is useful to consider Lyotard’s persistent reference

to the Freudian concept of originary repression, an interest which goes back
to Discourse, Figure from 1971. Within this specifically psychoanalytic con-
text, man’s childhood likewise becomes an incommensurable moment. Its
place appears as a non-place, because something that has not taken place in
the psyche nevertheless always already will have taken place. The notion of
an “originary” or primary repression thus embodies an almost archaic jolt,
prior not only to consciousness, but also to sub-consciousness. Secondary
repression, in contrast, can be said to refer to distinct disturbances which
are accessible through the interpretation of dreams. So, when we speak of
primary repression, we refer to something having shaken and affected the
subject without, however, having left any representative inscriptions in the
psyche. This archaic moment implies that no proper reception has been made
and, consequently, no defence against this initial jolt exists. The “object” of
the originary repression only returns later, after the jolt, when the psyche
already will have been affected. This return manifests itself as an intangible
anxiety, because a stranger will already have taken the individual as hostage.
Confronted with this non-object beyond time and space, Lyotard invokes the
immemorial. Something emanates from a past, something which defies every
present, because the forgotten has never been memorised by any conscious-
ness or sub-consciousness; a kind of oblivion before memory, and what is left

17 Lyotard, L’inhumain, p. 12.

174 30 Years after Les Immatériaux

are only traces of a primary life-giving terror – the non-forgettable forgotten,

as Lyotard writes in Heidegger and “the Jews”.

This shift in interest from the secondary repression to the primary repres-
sion allows Lyotard to approach an inborn inhumanity that destabilises the
integrity of the individual from the inside out. This inhumanity clearly refers
to another, entirely different, temporality than the time implied in an infor-
mational system, as described before. Something already will have happened
before it later (and far too late) returns to the subject as anxiety and pain.
In fact, the crux of the matter for Lyotard emerges here: if we were to try to
precipitate the initial jolt, we would be too early, for our psychic apparatus
is not yet formed; whereas any time afterwards is too late. It is exactly here
(where?), between the “too early” and the “too late”, in the ungraspability
of the future perfect, this “always already will have happened”, that this
occurrence resides.

What does all this have to do with resistance? Let us not forget to note that
the paradoxical temporality of the future perfect reappears in the modality of
occurrence of the event. So affected by the future perfect, thought might be
able – however painfully – to experience events and hence to seek that which
system excludes. Binary logic only receives information that is immediately
classifiable. System embraces the already given and not that which simply
occurs, i.e. that which is arriving in the sense of the German es gibt. Such
heterogeneous occurrences can occupy no byte. In this sense, it is staggering
how much information “reason” must exclude: literature, poetry, free
association (in the psychoanalytic sense), indeed ordinary language – that is to
say, any non-operative use of language that eventuates the unpresentable to
be experienced and formulated.

Experiences, under the sign of the future perfect, therefore, increase the
distance to well-organised and unconcerned social life. In company with
psychoanalysis, which aims to disrupt the repetitions generated by the
defence mechanism of memory, we should concentrate on resisting the
repetitions and the defence mechanisms of society. Social interaction
and communication would then be transcended by a reflexive work of
memory caring for that which is not inscribed in the universe of informatic
significations. Even the word “culture” signifies the circulation of information
rather than the work to be done to get to the point of presenting what is not
presentable in its occurrence. And yet, perhaps in cultivating the inhumanity
inherent to man, this reduction of culture to the circulation of bytes of infor-
mation might be opposed.
Exhibiting and Thinking 175

Towards a Postmodern Ethics?

In the end, Lyotard’s postmodern position seems less and less definable,
becoming more and more complex. Uncertain, modest and open, these,
and similar, words might be used to characterise his questioning of a “post-
modern situation”. He does not seek simple answers – the simple which is, as
he once said, the barbarian – but rather intends to expose and elaborate the
fundamental disquietude facing this pretended postmodern reality.

However, the asymmetrical tension whereby the two inhumanities take a

place in the postmodern question – that is to say, their inarticulation, because
they follow two different directions – can be articulated quite simply. In fact,
it is as if we have but to be open to the second inhumanity – that inhumanity
being housed in the empty heart of the subject – in order to resist the first
inhumanity, system’s inhumanity. When the second inhumanity is sought,
elaborated and cultivated as a work of reflexion, something unbearable
appears to the logic of system – namely, an inoperative presence of absence.
But resistance can never be positive. This is the very point, if one insists upon
a specific postmodern position. Resistance remains bound to the inhuman
aspect. Because that which constitutes the subject is radically other, the
force of resistance cannot be positive. Rewriting Freud’s originary repression,
Lyotard reveals a subject that is obliged to the condition of the afterwards-
ness (Nachträglichkeit, après-coup), because something has affected it before
mental receptivity.

The question, then, becomes one of how to interpret a resistance, consid-

ered in this negative perspective, in terms other than those outlining a kind of
ethics. In fact, Lyotard does seem to allow an ethical problematic to inform the
postmodern. A certain vocabulary of ethics dealing with an obligation toward
the unknown Law recurs almost word-for-word in this attentiveness toward an
unknown voice in the subject. We have to listen to a strange voice whose mes-
sage cannot be deciphered by signifying language or by phenomenological
perception, and we have to bow to the law emanating from this inhumanity
that inhabits man and forbids him to become his own master. On the
strength of playing on an obvious ethical theme, Lyotard seems to appeal to
a specific attitude concerning the thinking subject, which we recognise in Les
Immatériaux. It is not a simple matter of passivity versus activity, but rather of
an attitude, which, in French, is called passibilité. This passibility is to be under-
stood as a form of receptivity that presupposes a withdrawal of the concep-
tualising subject. Ethics, in this sense, is not a call, but rather the ability to be
called upon from something unknown.

In general, Lyotard wants to commit philosophy to heterogeneous and

vanishing – that is, immaterial – objects. In a certain way, he keeps drawing
nourishment from an almost secret layer of philosophy. The decline of
176 30 Years after Les Immatériaux

master narratives perhaps signifies the end of philosophy as institutional

metaphysics, but is not the end of philosophy as such – as thinking, as
questioning, as use of reflective judgement. On the contrary, when Lyotard
announced a postmodern challenge to philosophy, he outlined much more
than a simple coming to terms with the philosophy of history, a settlement,
which obviously precedes his entire work. Even his hostile analysis of
Marxism as an example of a grand narrative, narrating the future victory of
the working class, hardly justifies either relief or total disillusionment, as if
there was no need for philosophy any more. There is a reflexive work to be
done – in the name of that which is excluded from reality and, what is even
more urgent (and more difficult to realise), in the name of that which cannot
be presented by any reality. And this work is, indeed, and perhaps more than
ever, instigated by the postmodern banalisation and vulgarisation of reality.
This postmodern reality neutralises what is “real”. It destroys the event. As in
the Heidegger debate, the postmodern debate seems to be an occasion for
Lyotard to recall that which haunts thought.

This peculiar ethics traverses the anaesthetic aesthetics of Les Immatériaux,

where we have to be sensitive to the signs of postmodern a-teleology – even
if these signs, signifying almost nothing, are particularly ambiguous – in order
to realise a postmodern situation at all. In that respect, Les Immatériaux played
an active part in Lyotard’s efforts to rethink the postmodern, even to rescue
it by means of instruments that did not have to be restricted to the medium
of the book. That is why, conversely, Les Immatériaux can itself be seen as a
kind of performative philosophy, transforming Lyotard’s thoughts into action,
especially his ongoing reflections on the nature of the event. The postmodern
dramaturgy of the exhibition aimed to make the visitors experience how
something already will have happened. Regardless, without sensibility, there
would be no disquietude and no questioning. Pointing to something like
postmodern sensibility, Lyotard and his team at Les Immatériaux attempted
to transform a cultural event into possible events of sensitivity at the edge
of conceptual thinking, a kind of intellectual sensitivity that brings us back to
reflective judgement.

In conclusion, we could say that “the postmodern” would have liked to join
the list of ambiguous concepts that Lyotard kept questioning throughout his
works; concepts such as “figurality”, “heterogeneity”, “dissension”, “the event”,
“the thing” (la chose), “desire” – all terms that point to the fact that what is
sought marks a difference that cannot be organised around a common axis.
This was precisely his definition of “le différend”, which evoked an asymmetrical
conflict arising from the lack of a common language. And yet perhaps, before
joining this philosophical family, the postmodern got lost in ideology and the
mainstream. Maybe the postmodern was simply too exposed by the media to
be able to assume a real exhibiting function – that is, this “over-exposure” by
Exhibiting and Thinking 177

means of which Lyotard and his team at Les Immatériaux would have liked to
instigate reflection upon the human condition in an increasingly technological
world. However, when we both look back on the exhibition’s many innovative,
performative features, and look forward to curatorial practices that it might
have subsequently inspired, the almost untraceable, but undeniable long-term
effects of Les Immatériaux force us to perceive the degree to which Lyotard
strained every nerve to transform the postmodern from being a term of mere
historical classification into a philosophical agenda. The postmodern, thus,
would have called for an increasing awareness of and a critical reflection on a
high-technological society and its materials, which have become vertiginously
Anamnesis and
A Discourse on
Matter and Time

Yuk Hui

The whole question is this: is the passage

(anamnesis) possible, will it be possible with,
or allowed by, the new mode of inscription and
memoration [mémoration] that characterizes the
new technologies? Do they not impose syntheses,
and syntheses conceived still more intimately in
the soul than any earlier technology has done?1

Lyotard’s Les Immatériaux can be read as a profound discourse on matter and

time, one that aims to go beyond the simple correlation between technics
and memory, and toward the anamnesis of the unknown – or better, as I will
explain below, the re-orientation of the Occident. Plato memorably described
matter as the foster-mother in the Timaeus, where he proposes a third genre
of being in addition to the two he had discussed previously – an eternal
intelligible pattern and the imitation of such pattern. The third genre, explains
Plato, “is the receptacle, and in a manner the foster-mother, of all generation”. 2
Matter is the receptacle, but also the medium of inscription. Hence in Lyotard’s

1 Jean-François Lyotard, “Logos and Techne, or Telegraphy”, in The Inhuman: Reflections on

Time, trans. Geoffrey Bennington and Rachel Bowlby (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1991), p.
2 Plato, Timaeus, trans. Benjamin Jowett,; translation
180 30 Years after Les Immatériaux

system of “mat-” we find maternity. 3 Time stands for multiple senses: memory,
history, repetition, anamnesis. The new theoretical rigour that Lyotard wanted
to show throughout Les Immatériaux and beyond – especially as expressed
in his essay collection The Inhuman, published after the exhibition – dem-
onstrates a philosophical effort to transcend the totality anticipated by rapid
technological development, seeking a new mode of determination of matter
and indetermination of thought. Les Immateriaux serves as a critique of the
Occidental tradition of philosophising. One can identify both an affinity to
Heidegger yet also a desire to take a distance from him, since the question of
the Other stands at the centre of Lyotard’s inquiry.

This article aims to elaborate on Lyotard’s anamnesis of the Other, and to

introduce another question on rethinking the potential of new technologies. I
suggest that these two questions are closely related to each other, and in the
rest of the article I want to show how.

The Other stands for an addressee and an addresser, as well as the condition
of a différend, which turns against itself and produces the différend as an
opening of questions. Michel Olivier has rightly pointed out that the différend
is not contingent – rather, it is already within the language. If we understand
the différend here as the conflict between the different rules of two parties,
how then can we think about the question of translation? To what extent can
a translator be loyal to the différend? This will depend on another question:
How sensitive is the translator toward the différend? This Other stands as the
interlocutor of the anamnesis that Lyotard endeavoured to propose. To ask
who this Other is, we first have to answer the question: Is the postmodern
merely a European project? And if it is a European project, then would such a
discourse be applicable to non-European cultures?

The Postmodern – Is it a European Project?

This question is ambivalent. Even though the debates were contextualised
within European culture, including Lyotard’s critique of Habermas’s insistence
on the Enlightenment project, its influence went far beyond Europe. The
influence of his concept of the postmodern – through global technological
expansion, including the translation, publication and circulation of Lyotard’s
The Postmodern Condition – has already betrayed its intention as a European
project. On the occasion of the exhibition, Lyotard organized a teleconference
to show how time and space are traversed by the new material (later we will
see that it is the immaterial), with representatives from Japan and Brazil, as
well as Canada, the USA, and France. One can postulate that Lyotard already
had on his mind the technological globalisation which is the reason why

3 Lyotard analyses the etymological root mât in terms of referent (matière), hardware
(matériel), support (matériau), matrix (matrice), maternity (maternité).
Anamnesis and Re-orientation 181

postmodern discourse is no longer limited to Europe but extends around the

globe. If this is the case, then we have to consider: What does it mean when
countries adopt the postmodern without having been modern, as for example
in the case of China, which some French thinkers consider to be a country of
modernisation but not modernity? After the postmodern of Lyotard, and fur-
ther through Frederic Jameson, we can indeed see an intensive discourse on
the postmodern question in China. However, in China at least, these debates
have not gone beyond aesthetics and narrations in literature. It seems to me
that, besides its aesthetic value, which presented a sort of Zeitgeist, the post-
modern question has still not really been tackled, and that further inquiries
are needed.

Lyotard often referred the concept of the Other (or one of these Others)
to the thirteenth-century Japanese Zen master, Dôgen, as a reference and
mirror by which the différend within the European logos can be reflected. In
fact, Dôgen was probably one of the key inspirations for the new metaphysics
which Lyotard spoke of during the preparation of the Les Immatériaux, in order
to articulate a new relation between matter and time, and hence anamnesis.
The question of matter is firstly expressed in the original title of the exhibition
project itself, which was Les nouveaux matériaux et la creation [New Materials
and Creation]. The “immatériaux” are not immaterial, but rather a new form of
material brought about by telecommunication technologies. The new form of
material turned against the modern project which produced it and created a
rupture with it. It may not be appropriate to say that the postmodern was an
epochal change that suddenly broke away from the modern; rather, the pos-
sibility of the postmodern was always already there within modern thought,
as Lyotard himself wrote in The Postmodern Condition: “A work can become
modern only if it is firstly postmodern, in the current state, and this state is
constant.”4 For example, for Lyotard, Denis Diderot’s grand salon or Michel
de Montaigne’s prose are already postmodern. The changes in the material
condition due to technoscientific discoveries and inventions have amplified
this mode of thinking and narration. Hence, we can say that the postmodern
is the result of an amplification, and the theme that is at centre of Lyotard’s
exhibition is both material and figurative.

This process of amplification has also brought about structural transfor-

mations across all domains concerning knowledge. In this new material con-
dition, the meaning of creation has significantly changed. Lyotard prefers to
understand the relation between humans and things not as creation, in the
sense of a subject creating its world, “for the purposes of the provisions of this

4 Jean-François Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition, trans. by Geoffrey Bennington and

Brian Massumi (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press), p. 79.
182 30 Years after Les Immatériaux

world and enjoyment of this world, enjoyment of knowledge, power”. 5 On the

contrary, this new materiality has put an end to this anthropocentrism.6 For
this reason, Lyotard preferred to conceptualise the new matter as interaction
rather than creation. This, I suspect, is also one of the reasons why the word
“creation” was removed from the exhibition title. This reconceptualisation
demands a new metaphysics which reconfigures the sense of being, and
fundamentally transforms the concept of human existence. Lyotard says:

If you say creation, that means that you prohibit the other metaphysics
that I evoked earlier: a metaphysics in which, precisely, man is not a sub-
ject facing the world of objects, but only – and this “only” seems to me to
be very important – only a sort of synapse, a sort of interactive clicking
together of the complicated interface between fields wherein flow the
elements of particles via channels of waves.7

What does Lyotard mean by “interaction” here? He does not mean that the
human interacts with objects rather than creating them like being in a dia-
logue – Lyotard went much further; interaction signifies an ontology of the
transmission of a message without end, in which “man himself is not the origin
of messages, but sometimes the receiver, sometimes the referent, sometimes
a code, sometimes a support for the message; and where sometimes he
himself is the message. This plasticity of humans means that this structure
of communication today seems like something upon which identities can no
longer be fixed.” 8 This metaphysics cannot be found in the thought of Des-
cartes, said Lyotard, but it would be possible to think through Spinoza, or
Zen Buddhism – though not, he added, Zen as understood in California, but
rather the Zen of the Chinese tradition, as incarnated by a great Japanese
philosopher living in China, who is called …”.9 Even though the name is missing
in this report (Après six mois de travail…), we will see later that it is Dôgen.

In Après six mois de travail…, Lyotard only told half of the story about Dôgen,
to explain the conceptualisation of being in terms of interaction instead of
creation. Creation is the question that was posed at the beginning of the
European tradition, and during medieval times; creation is the point where
Christian theology and Aristotelian metaphysics merge, which in turn founds
what Heidegger called “ontotheology”. Lyotard told the second half of the
story about Dôgen in a talk invited by Bernard Stiegler on the occasion of a

5 Jean-François Lyotard, Après six mois de travail…, 1984, Archive du Centre Pompidou,
translated as “After Six Months of Work …", in this volume, p. 36 (“à des fins de dis-
positions de ce monde et de jouissance de ce monde, jouissance de savoir, de pouvoir”).
6 Ibid.
7 Ibid.
8 Ibid., p. 37.
9 Ibid.
Anamnesis and Re-orientation 183

colloquium at IRCAM of the Centre Pompidou in 1986, later published as “Logos

and Techne, or Telegraphy”.

However, let us step back and ask: Why is the question of anamnesis so
important for Lyotard, and how does it relate to the new technologies he wit-
nessed in the 1980s?

On the Senses of Anamnesis

The question posed by Lyotard that was quoted at the beginning of this article
was directed to Bernard Stiegler, the philosopher of anamnesis. Lyotard was
the supervisor of Stiegler’s master’s degree thesis at that time, and thus
understood very well the work of the young philosopher who later dedicated
three volumes of Technics and Time to anamnesis. Although there is no record
of this discussion, it seems intriguing that the question has still not yet been
answered in a satisfactory manner, at least not in the contemporary literature
that I can find. In order to understand the complexity of Lyotard’s question
on anamnesis, and our ambition to understand the meaning of the Les Imm-
matériaux outside of the European context, we will need to revisit the concept
of anamnesis in Plato, Stiegler’s take on Plato, Freud, and Lyotard’s take on

The Platonic Concept of Anamnesis

Anamnesis plays an important role in the Platonic system of knowledge,

understood as the path towards truth. Plato’s writing on this role of anamnesis
is clearly expressed in both the Phaedo and the Meno, where he formulated the
concept as a response to the challenge from the Sophists. Let us reformulate
the Sophists’ challenge in this way: If you know what virtue is (in the Meno), or
what being appropriate is (in the Phaedo), then you don’t really need to pursue
it, since it is already in you; if you don’t know what it is, then you won’t be able
to recognize it or conduct yourself according to it. This is a paradox which
leads to the conclusion that one can never find the true knowledge or the
ultimate good. Plato solved this paradox by saying: one does in fact know it,
and indeed one does in fact know it, and indeed has always known it. The soul
is immortal, said Plato, but in each incarnation, the soul forgets everything.
However, forgetting doesn’t mean that one cannot recognize the virtue
that one is after. Forgetting is the condition of recognizing, and recollection
– anamnesis – the method. The relation between truth and anamnesis is
thus established. Socrates and Plato are not teachers in the sense of giving
knowledge to students, but rather, as Plato said, spiritual midwives who help
the students to recollect what has been forgotten. Hence, in the Meno, with
the help of Socrates, the slave-boy learns to solve some geometrical ques-
tions despite having no prior knowledge of the matter. Recollection is not
184 30 Years after Les Immatériaux

only about recollecting a certain fact or principle, but rather a process of

recovering the wholeness of knowledge. In the Meno (81c-d), Plato stated:

Since all nature is akin (συγγενής), and the soul has learnt all things, there
is nothing to prevent her, by recollecting one single thing, recovering all
the rest.10

One can notice that there is a kind of logical inference in Plato’s concept of the
anamnesis, but how does it work? One interpretation is that it functions on
the basis of the Platonic Idea, like a sort of a priori concept which allows such
an inference to happen.11 This a priori, however, is not what we understand in
the Kantian sense of the term. The Platonic Idea follows rather Parmenides’s
the One, in which thinking (the intellect) and being find their unity. However,
Plato detaches the Idea from the particulars through his concept of the
chōrismós , or separation. This separation is also one that removes the Idea
from matter, that is to say truth from any material condition. This concept of
separation was reproached by Aristotle, since the Platonic doctrine disregards
the reality of the particular. Aristotle wants to reintegrate matter into his doc-
trine of being. The Platonic Idea which corresponds to the Aristotelian concept
of form (eidos) becomes the first of the four causalities that Aristotle outlined
in his Metaphysics Book V: causa formalis, causa materialis, causa efficiens, and
causa finalis.

The re-inscription of matter becomes an important philosophical task for

the tradition of European philosophy, including in modern philosophy, where
we find attempts to unify the body and the soul in the doctrines of Des-
cartes, Spinoza and Leibniz. To situate anamnesis in our discussion, I would
like to refer to the reading of Plato by Bernard Stiegler. Stiegler has decon-
structed the example given by Plato in Meno, since Plato has forgotten the
tool that Socrates used to demonstrate these geometrical questions, which
was drawing on the sand. For Stiegler, technics constitutes a crucial role in
the concept of anamnesis, for anamnesis is not possible without a support
that is outside the noetic soul. Stiegler hence proposes a retentional system
that characterises the processes of anamnesis through a reading of Hus-
serl’s phenomenology of time-consciousness: primary retention (impression,
association), secondary retention (memory, recognition) and tertiary retention
(exteriorised memory). Within this system, the retentions constitute a cycle
of mutual determination, meaning that the tertiary retentions condition the
selection of the primary retention, which in turn conditions the recognition
of the secondary retention, and so on. Later, I will show how this reading of
technics and time, as a path towards truth (either in the sense of the Greek
word alētheia or in contemporary senses), demonstrates a discrepancy

10 Reginald Edgar Allen, “Anamnesis in Plato’s Meno and Phaedo”, The Review of Metaphysics,
vol. 13, no. 1 (Sept. 1959), p. 167.
11 Ibid. I will argue against this assertion.
Anamnesis and Re-orientation 185

between the philosophical West and the philosophical East. The examination
of this discrepancy will provide us with a new perspective from which to look
at the postmodern turn.

The Freudian Concept of Anamnesis

The relations between matter and time, according to Lyotard, can be grasped
in three different temporal syntheses: those of habit, remembrance and
anamnesis. Habit is a synthesis that expresses itself bodily. Remembrance
always searches for a narrative with an origin, or a beginning. Anamnesis,
for Lyotard, means something rather different and must be carefully dis-
tinguished from remembrance. This distinction has its source in Freud,
especially his 1914 essay Erinnern, Wiederholen und Durcharbeiten. In this
essay Freud tried to show that there are two techniques of analysis, one
through hypnosis, which helps the patient to reconstruct the unconscious-
ness in a simple form of remembering – simple in the sense that the patient
is removed from the present, and what matters is the earlier situation. Freud
added a second scenario in which “no memory can as a rule be recovered”.12
This occurs, for example, with some experiences of childhood which we
didn’t understand at the time, but which disclose themselves subsequently.
The biggest difference between the technique of remembrance in hypnosis
and the technique of uncovering repetition is that in the latter the patient
“reproduces it not as a memory but as an action; he repeats it, without, of
course, knowing that he is repeating it”.13 The analyst’s task in this case is to
help the patient to uncover the source of the resistance. However, as Freud
identified, there are two difficulties here: the first is that the patient refuses
to think there is a problem, that is to say, he or she refuses to remember;
the second is that novice analysts often found that, even after revealing this
resistance to the patient, there was no change. At this point, Freud introduces
the third term, Durcharbeiten or “working-through”:

One must allow the patient time to become more conversant with this
resistance with which he has now become acquainted, to work through it,
to overcome it, by continuing, in defiance of it, the analytic work according
to the fundamental rule of analysis.14

In the lecture “Logos, Techne, or Telegraphy” (1986), Lyotard commented

on Stiegler’s retentional model of memory by referring to three type of
memories: namely, bleaching ( frayage), scanning (balayage) and passing (pas-
sage), corresponding respectively to habit, remembrance and anamnesis.

12 Sigmund Freud, Remembering, Repeating, and Working-Through, in vol. 12 of Standard

Edition (1950), p. 149.
13 Ibid., p. 150.
14 Ibid., p. 155.
186 30 Years after Les Immatériaux

Lyotard identifies Freud’s Durcharbeiten with the third type of synthesis of

time – anamnesis. Lyotard’s reading of Durcharbeiten is, as we will see below,
quite different from that of Freud.15 For Lyotard, this anamnesis has two
different senses, the nuances of which have to be carefully distinguished.
The first sense of Durcharbeiten takes a form of free association: as Lyotard
says, the passing takes more energy than scanning and bleaching, precisely
because it doesn’t have rules.16 This sense is taken up on another occasion, in
Le Postmoderne expliqué aux enfants, where he understands avant-gardism as
a movement highly responsible for the presuppositions implied in modernity.
The work of the modern painters from Manet to Duchamp or Barnett
Newman, could be understood in terms of an anamnesis in the sense of
psychoanalytic therapeutics:

Just as the patient tries to elaborate his present trouble by freely

associating some apparently inconsistent elements with some past situ-
ation – allowing them to uncover hidden meanings in their lives and their
behaviour – in the same way we can think of the work of Cézanne, Picasso,
Delaunay, Kandinsky, Klee, Mondrian, Malevich, and finally Duchamp as
a working through (Durcharbeiten) performed by modernity on its own

For Lyotard, these artists, including the avant-gardes, didn’t represent a rup-
ture from the modern, but rather an anamnesis of the modern. Hence post-
modern art is a liberation from rules and responsibility, and a passing beyond
the rules of inscription, through anamnesis. What is more interesting, and
seems to be highly puzzling in Lyotard’s thought, is the demand for something
which is not inscribed and hence cannot be limited by the rules of writing.
This origin is not something remembered, and indeed it is a memory which is
not inscribed, but cannot be forgotten. One example is Freud’s notion of the
experience of childhood as something that is not remembered but that has to
be worked through. Hence Christopher Fynsk proposed to emphasize the role
of infancy in Lyotard’s concept of anamnesis, noting that Lyotard “understood
himself to be writing from an infancy and to an infancy”.18 It is not only that
Lyotard has written two books, one from infancy (Lectures d’Enfance), the other
to infancy (Le Postmoderne expliqué aux enfants), but that deeply rooted in his

15 In the article by Scarfone Dominique, “À quoi œuvre l’analyse?”, Libres cahiers pour la
psychanalyse 1/2004 (N°9), 109–123, the author states that for Freud the Durcharbeiten
is a task that comes back to the patient and the analyst can only wait to let things
come along; for Lyotard, it is the contrary, meaning that it is the “third ear” (term taken
from Nietzsche, Ohren hinter den Ohren) of the analyst, that should bring forth the
Durcharbeiten, p. 116.
16 Lyotard, “Logos and Techne, or Telegraphy”, p. 57.
17 Jean-François Lyotard, Postmodern explained: correspondence, 1982–1985, trans. Don Barry
(Sydney: Power Publications, 1993), p. 79–80, translation modified.
18 Christopher Fynsk, “Lyotard’s Infancy”, in Jean-Francois Lyotard: Time and Judgment, Yale
French Studies, No. 99, (2001), p. 48.
Anamnesis and Re-orientation 187

thought is, as Fynsk shows, the impulse of infancy becoming the condition of
anamnesis, and hence of writing.

Clear Mirror and the Negation of the Logos

I have no objection to such an interpretation of Lyotard’s anamnesis, but
I would like to complicate it. I would argue that anamnesis is present in
Lyotard’s writings at once as a technique – as we have seen above – but
also as a logic – as I will now elaborate. In the text that we have started to
analyse, in the section on anamnesis in which Lyotard dramatically talks
about an example from Dôgen, Lyotard uses Dôgen to explain what he means
by “passing”, or anamnesis. Here we can observe a nuance that I proposed
before, concerning the use of the word anamnesis as Durcharbeiten. As Fynsk
writes, “I believe that the appeal to Dôgen, here, is not merely an instance
of exoticism, however effective it might also be on that score. It is rather an
implicit acknowledgment that what he seeks to think does not surrender to
the concept or to any theoretical exposition – that if there is a passage from
infancy to thought, it is not established by the concept”. I would like to take
this reference to Dôgen more seriously than Fynsk does; indeed, references
to Dôgen do not only appear once in Lyotard’s writings, but also appear in
various notes and interviews.

I want to propose that what Lyotard was thinking was much more intriguing,
and even something more uncanny, than Fynsk describes. I call this logic
the negation of logos. The word “negation” is perhaps not correct, or doesn’t
carry the right sense. The negation at stake here is not a total negation nor
a partial probation (e.g. part, intensity). The difference between privation
and negation has to be clarified first. Let us paraphrase Heidegger’s funny
example of skiing to clarify the difference between privation and negation as
understood by the Greeks.19 When I am asked if I have time for skiing, I reply,
“no, I don’t have time”. In fact, I do have time, but I don’t have time for you.
The negation that I want to demonstrate here is not that being is negated in
taking a reverse direction, but rather that it is “privated” in such a way that
the direction is diverted. The first case is exemplified in the movement from
modern to postmodern. The postmodern is the self-negation of the modern. It
is not that, at a certain moment of modernity, something happened, and then
we have the postmodern. It means rather that, at some moment of its devel-
opment, the logic of modernity turned against itself and changed its direction.
This negation as privation coming out of internal development is a neologism

19 Martin Heidegger, Zollikon Seminars: Protocols, Conversations, Letters, ed. Medard Boss
(Illinois: Northwestern University Press, 2001), p. 46–47. Heidegger writes: “It took Greek
thinkers two hundred years to discover the idea of privation. Only Plato discovered this
negation as privation and discussed it in his dialogue The Sophist.”
188 30 Years after Les Immatériaux

presented by Lyotard in his introduction to Les Immatériaux.20 The reference

to Dôgen seeks to demonstrate the same logic, but no longer limited to the
case of modernity, but rather to the logos as a whole. I believe that here lies
Lyotard’s ultimate question on technics – which, however, remains ambiguous.
Lyotard attempted to compare what he means by anamnesis with what Dôgen
calls “a clear mirror” in Shōbōgenzō, the classic of Zen Buddhism. I will quote at
length the comment from Lyotard, in order to make clear what he thinks about
it. Let’s look closely at Lyotard’s discussion on Dôgen:

It makes sense to try to recall something (let’s call it something) which

has not been inscribed if the inscription of this something broke the sup-
port of the writing or the memory. I am borrowing this metaphor of the
mirror from one of the treatises of Dōgen’s Shōbōgenzō, the Zenki, there
can be a presence that the mirror cannot reflect, but that breaks it into
smithereens. A foreigner or a Chinese can come before the mirror and
their image appears in it. But if what Dōgen calls “a clear mirror” faces the
mirror, then “everything will break into smithereens”. And Dōgen goes on
to make this clear: “Do not imagine that there is first the time in which the
breaking has not yet happened, nor that there is then the time in which
everything breaks. There is just the breaking.” So there is a breaking
presence which is never inscribed nor memorable. It does not appear.
It is not a forgotten inscription, it doesn’t have its place and time on the
support of inscriptions, in the reflecting mirror. It remains unknown to the
breachings and scannings. 21

This passage seems to me the most puzzling part of Lyotard’s intervention.

The mirror and clear mirror seem to have a lot of metaphorical connotations.
As a kind of dialogue between a twentieth-century French philosopher and
a thirteenth-century Japanese monk, it is very difficult for us to analyse
this statement without going into any kind of exoticism. The clear mirror is
not a mirror; rather, it is one possibility of the mind, before which nothing
exists as what it is: things can exist or not exist. The clear mirror presents
something almost opposite to any conceptualisation of substance, since it is
mere emptiness. Firstly, the clear mirror negates the substance or essence
(ousia) as eidos. Hence, there hasn’t been any event that breaks the mirror and
marks the beginning. In front of a clear mirror, there is only constant breaking,
which destroys the concept of the self (the self cannot be mirrored at all). So a
Chinese person can see himself, since he still has upādāna (clinging, grasping,
attachment), which is a desire towards representation. In contrast, a clear
mirror sees everything broken, since in-itself it is empty. Lyotard further wrote
that “I am not sure that the West – the philosophical West – has succeeded

20 Jean-Francois Lyotard, Deuxième état des immatériaux, Mars 1984, Archive du Centre
21 Lyotard, “Logos and Techne, or Telegraphy”, p. 55.
Anamnesis and Re-orientation 189

in thinking this, by the very fact of its technological vocation.” 22 Plato didn’t
succeed with his concept of agathon, or “being beyond essence”; Freud tried
with his concept of “originary repression” (Urverdrängung); and Heidegger
tried with his metaphor of “the clearing” (die Lichtung), but he ignored the
violence of it.

Lyotard transforms the “clear mirror” into a question of writing, that is also a
question of the logos. Here we come across another meaning of substance,
which is the support, the hypokeimenon. The question is: can being [ens] be
without being carried in the hypokeimenon? Or, as Lyotard asked in the first
article of the Inhuman, “can thought go on without a body?” Can logos facilitate
an anamnesis that is not inscribed by it? In other words, can logos – and, here,
techno-logos – instead of determining the anamnesis, rather allow it to arrive in
a non-deterministic way? This question is very speculative, and far too difficult
to be answered in one article (indeed, it may take several generations to make
it clear whether or not this question in itself is a valid one). Lyotard hopes to
move away from the logos through the logos, such as was demonstrated in the
postmodern turn. In the teaching of Dôgen, there is another similar passage
that demonstrates this logic. The Zen master teaches “Think of not-thinking.
How do you think of not-thinking? Non-thinking. This is the essential art of
zazen.” 23 Zazen or tso-ch’an, literally means “sitting Zen”, and is a technique of
meditation. The opposition that Dôgen created is thinking and not-thinking.
This is a pure negation, since thinking cannot be not-thinking, and not-thinking
cannot be thinking. But between thinking (shiryō) and not-thinking ( fushiryō),
there is a third way which is non-thinking (hishiryō); it negates both thinking
and not-thinking, through the privation of thinking. The non- is the Other.
This negation of the logos diverts itself towards something else, and there
Lyotard finds in Dôgen the Other which is not inscribed in the logos. Lyotard
was in favour of this logic. In a talk given at a colloquium on the occasion of
the opening of an exhibition of the work of artist Bracha Lichtenberg Ettinger,
later published as Anamnesis of the Visible, Lyotard described her work as “I
remember that I no longer remember”. 24 We can probably say that this double-
bind is the logic of anamnesis: Is the non-logos possible through the negation
of logos within logos? In the last paragraph of the article, Lyotard raised the
question that we cited at the beginning of this text:

The whole question is this: is the passage possible, will it be possible

with, or allowed by, the new mode of inscription and memoration that
characterizes the new technologies? Do they not impose syntheses, and

22 Ibid., p. 55.
23 Carl Olson, Zen and the Art of Postmodern Philosophy: Two Paths of Liberation From the
Representational Mode of Thinking (New York: State University of New York Press, 2000),
p. 68.
24 Jean-Francois Lyotard, “Anamnesis: Of the Visible”, in Theory Culture and Society 2004, No.
21, p. 118.
190 30 Years after Les Immatériaux

syntheses conceived still more intimately in the soul than any earlier
technology has done? 25

Lyotard asked what kinds of new possibilities could be opened up by this

new technology, towards the unknown. Or, in contrast, he asked whether the
new technology is only in favour of a synthesis which is even more efficient
and hegemonic, e.g. automation. I believe that this is Lyotard’s central ques-
tion, and it was present throughout his preparation for Les Immatériaux. The
question was posed to the philosophers of writing, or of mnemotechnics. The
task of this article, in its most ambitious sense, is to question whether it is a
valid question. The logos is confronted with the clear mirror, in order to think
whether it is possible to realize the clear mirror with the techno-logos. If we
only think from this perspective, the postmodern will remain only a European
project, and hence the discourse of globalisation, of the “common time”, 26 is
no more than a pretext. There is no easy way to evaluate this question without
going back to the Other, from where the clear mirror comes, and where the
différend happens. It needs courage to bring in something exotic, and I think
Lyotard did it, with best intentions, to think with the différend, a space opened
up between European culture and Japanese Zen Buddhism. But in order to
understand the différend, one has to analyse the regime of phrases (which
defines the intentions, descriptive, prescriptive or interrogative) and the
genre of discourses (which defines the rules) of the Other. Unfortunately, this
analysis is yet to be elaborated.

Clear Mirror Confronts the Logos

Lyotard was right to relate the clear mirror to Heidegger’s “clearing” or
Lichtung, but I think it is not Lichtung per se, but rather Gelassenheit which
prepares for the coming of the clearing. Gelassenheit, for Heidegger, is the
question of privation. However, there is a fundamental difference between
the system of Gelassenheit and the system of the clear mirror. The Korean-
German philosopher Byung-Chul Han, in his book Shanzhai: Dekonstruktion
auf Chinesisch, makes an interesting observation in which he shows that the
“path”, or the tao, is different from the Weg of Heidegger, since for the former
there is no creation but only de-creation (Ent-schöpfung), regardless of its
origin;27 while for the latter, it is always a search of an origin, since this search
is the condition under which the forgetting brought about by ontotheology
might be recognised as such, and thereby overcome. It would be too quick to
equate tao with clear mirror, since Taoism and Buddhism stand as two distinct
traditions within China. However, it is not a distortion to show that the Ent-
schöpfung sets up a common ground for cultures that unite different religious

25 Lyotard, “Logos and Techne, or Telegraphy”, p. 57 (italics added).

26 Ibid., p. 47.
27 Byung-Chul Han, Shanzhai: Dekonstruktion auf Chinesisch (Berlin: Merve, 2011).
Anamnesis and Re-orientation 191

thoughts. Again, the Ent-schöpfung that I borrow from Han is not opposed to
creation (Schöpfung) as destruction; ent- stands not for negation but rather

When we deal with two forms of knowledge (let’s follow Lyotard in speaking of
the philosophical “West” and the philosophical “East”), we always risk sim-
plifying them, but in order to have a dialogue (if this is possible at all), it is hard
not to simplify them as two systems. A dialogue needs a common ground, and
the search for a common ground is always a privation. I can here only give a
quick sketch of the reflections of two major Chinese and Japanese thinkers,
and I will have to find another occasion to give a detailed account. For now, I
will allow myself some shortcuts by placing it within the Kantian framework,
as was already proposed by the Chinese philosopher Mou Zongsan. Mou is
one of the most important figures of the new Confucianism, and arguably the
only one in the twentieth century who understood both Western and Chinese
philosophy. A specialist in Taoism, Buddhism and Confucianism, as well as
the translator of the three Critiques of Immanuel Kant, Mou understands
the difference between the West and the East within Kant’s framework: in a
rather simplified sense, one concerns a knowledge that, constrained by the
receptivity of sensible intuition and the categories of the understanding, is
confined to phenomena; the other concerns an intellectual intuition that con-
cerns the experience which goes beyond the phenomenon towards what Kant
calls the noumenon. Mou writes:

According to Kant, intellectual intuition belongs only to God, but not to

humans. I think this is really astonishing. I reflect on Chinese philosophy,
and if one follows the thought of Kant, I think that Confucianism, Bud-
dhism and Taoism all confirm that humans have intellectual intuition;
otherwise it wouldn’t be possible to become a saint, buddha, or Zhenren. 28

Indeed, the intellectual intuition conceptualized by Mou is one that looks

neither for scientific knowledge nor history (an origin qua difference), but to
a sensibility in which everything reflects a non-pheneomenal world: entering
the thing-in-itself (no matter what it is, but probably not yet possible with a
computer). The desire to enter the noumenon is characterised by distancing
from substance as both hypokeimenon and eidos, from physics to metaphysics.
This line of thought is further pursued by the Japanese philosopher Keiji
Nishitani, who studied under Heidegger, and was also a successor of Kitarō
Nishida, an important figure of the Kyoto School. During the 1980s, Nishitani
held several discourses in different temples in Japan, discussing modern-
isation and Buddhism, and later published them as a book with the title On
Buddhism. Astonishingly, Nishitani claimed that the concept of the historical

28 Mou Zongsan, Phenomenon and the Thing-in-itself (《 現象與物自身》) (Taiwan: Student Book,
1975), p. 5 (my translation). Zhenren is the Taoist spiritual master, who has become free
and immortal.
192 30 Years after Les Immatériaux

does not exist in Asian culture. What he meant by historical is the awareness
of situating oneself as a historical being, and the anamnesis of historical
events that reconstruct a historicity, or Geschichtlichkeit:

I am sure that Buddhism falls short of such historical consciousness, at

least to some extent. Generally speaking, something called “historical”
exists no less in China than in India and Japan. But I have the impression
that in these countries there has been no trace of seeing the world as
history in the true sense of the word … This way of thinking is somewhat
different from an historical one, at least of the sort prevalent in the
modern world. 29

Nishitani further commented that such a concept of historicity is neglected in

the mode of thinking proper to East Asia – that is, the search of the intellectual
intuition, under different titles. I am not sure if we can understand the clear
mirror as a kind of anamnesis, since it totally undermines the chronological
notion of time. Nishitani, however, attributes the concept of historicity to the
Christian tradition, without asking the question of anamnesis. A dialogue
could be made between Nishitani and Bernard Stiegler. This historicity has
to be retrieved through the anamnesis of writing, or technics, which Stiegler
calls “the epochal double redoubling”, that is “(re)constituting a who, and thus
historicity – if not History”. 30 Writing, as Stiegler further showed in the third
volume of Technics and Time: Cinematic Time and the Question of Malaise, is the
“spatialisation of the time of consciousness past and passing as Weltgeschicht-
lichkeit”.31 Historicity is only possible through anamnesis with mnenotechnics,
and for it to happen it demands an origin of some sort (or the default of
origin). This line of thought on time and matter is not present in Asian
cultures, as Nishitani explains:

the other aspect – namely, that it is historical and that being is time – is
comparatively neglected. Or rather I should say, if the term “neglect” is a
bit of an exaggeration, it is not sufficiently developed. This is attributable
to the fact that Buddhism places emphasis on the negative inherent in
the contention that time is somewhat transient and that this is a world of
suffering. Buddhism seems to have failed to grasp that the world of time
is a field in which something new emerges without interruption. 32

29 Keiji Nishitani, On Buddhism (NewYork: SUNY, 2006), p. 40.

30 Bernard Stiegler, Technics and Time, vol. 2 (Stanford: Standford University Press, 2009), p.
31 Bernard Stiegler, Technics and Time vol. 3 (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2011), p.
32 Keiji Nishitani, On Buddhism, p. 49–50.
Anamnesis and Re-orientation 193

“Time is transient.” 33 However, this transient time has to be overcome in order

to attain a status whereby being is constant. 34 In this status, time no longer
has any meaning. Hence, following the Heideggerian motif, Nishitani observes
that being has never been understood as time, and hence that a world history
is not fully grasped in Asian culture. A question may be posed immediately:
Isn’t there also writing in East Asia; and indeed, weren’t the Chinese the first
to invent paper? The question can be answered in two ways. Firstly, there was
a privation of the anamnesis of history in favour of an anamnesis of the clear
mirror, meaning that there is a tendency in Eastern thought which ignores the
question of support. Secondly, the technics of anamnesis of the West is not
limited to history as records of events, but rather a mode of thinking which
searches for an origin, no matter which one. The anamnesis of the clear mirror
designates another conception of time and matter (support). We will see later
how this contributed to the fact that the Orient was not able to resist the
mnemotechnics of the Occident.

Disorientation and Dis-orientation

It is only within the analysis of the discourse of the Other that one can define
the différend. The postmodern for Lyotard is a disorientation that challenges
the authority to announce something childish. A typical example of the
modern gaze is when Descartes criticised the city building in Paris, arguing
that it was not well planned and hence seemed like a children’s game. This
disorientation has a double sense, as a liberation from the modern, from
the responsibility and projects intrinsic to the modern; yet it is also a mel-
ancholia, since the post- is the search for an anamnesis which has not yet
arrived, and hence constitutes its very questioning. But before this ques-
tion can be reposed and reformulated, it is necessary to see another type
of dis-orientation, in which the clear mirror confronts the techno-logos in
material terms and substantial forms in what was once called colonisation and
imperialism, and now globalisation.

I allow myself to briefly summarise a historical moment after the Opium

Wars. When China realised its incompetence in warfare, it immediately
adopted Western technology, science and democracy, which totally rewrote
the conception of time. After the Opium Wars (1839–1842, 1856–1860), China
recognized that it would be impossible to win any war without developing
Western technologies. The serious defeats it suffered led to the Self-
Strengthening Movement (1861–1895), which extensively modernized the

33 Ibid., p. 49.
34 I use the word “constant” by making allusion to François Jullien’s distinction between
eternal (Christian theological perception) and constant (Chinese perception) as the
coordinate system of time; see Jullien, Du temps – éléments d’une philosophie de vivre
(Paris: Livre de poche, 2012).
194 30 Years after Les Immatériaux

military, industrialized production, and reformed the education system. Two

slogans came out of the movement which fully characterize the spirit of the
time. The first one is, “learning from the West to overcome the West” (师夷长技
以制夷 ); the second one bears a more cultural and nationalist spirit: “Chinese
learning for fundamental principles and Western learning for practical
application” (中学为体,西学为用). Western technology produced hype in China,
but more fundamentally, it produced fear. We can recall the example of the
first railway in China, from Shanghai to Woosung, built by the English company
Jardine, Matheson & Co. around 1876-1877. The railway led to so much fear
(in terms of security and potential accidents), that the Ching Dynasty paid
285,000 taels of silver to buy the railway and destroy it. 35 Such moments of the
transformation of cultures, which some Asian scholars tend to ambiguously
call “modernisation” or “a different modernity”, is indeed very modern, since it
is absolutely Cartesian, in the sense that one holds that the core philosophical
thought can sustain and transform the material condition.

The second reflection on technoscience as well as democracy came after the

1911 revolution in China, when those who had been sent abroad as children
later became such intellectuals.. One of the most important intellectual
movements, now known as the May Fourth Movement, erupted in 1919. During
the 1920s and 30s, Western philosophy started to flourish in China. Three
names are closely related to the contemporary intellectual history of China:
William James, Henri Bergson and Bertrand Russell (note that in fact none
of these philosophers are specialists in technics). The intellectual debates of
the period concerned whether or not China should be fully Westernised and
fully adopt Western science, technologies and democracy, as supported by
intellectuals such as Hu Shi (a student of John Dewey), and (on the opposite
side) criticised by Carsun Chang Chia-sen (a student of Rudolf Eucken),
Chang Tung-sun (the Chinese translator of Bergson in the 1920s) and others.
These debates, however, led to unresolved questions and uncompromising
propositions. Some intellectuals started to realise the mistake of the Cartesian
binary opposition between the mind and the instrument, expressed in the
earlier conception of the relation between Chinese and Western cultures.
These debates ultimately did not go beyond either the affirmation of a
modernized China (which included the alphabetisation of Chinese writing), or
the insistence upon the values of life in traditional thought that resonate with
the metaphysics of Eucken and Bergson.

China was unable to go further because of a lack of understanding of technics.

The intellectuals of the generation of Mou Zhongsan saw their ultimate task
as one of absorbing Christianity into Chinese culture. Technics has never
constituted the core question of Chinese philosophy or Chinese culture. One

35 Sun, Kuang-Teh, Late Ching Tradition and Debates around Westernisation (Taiwan:
Commercial Press, 1982) 孫廣德,晚清傳統與西化的爭論(台灣: 商務印書館, 1982).
Anamnesis and Re-orientation 195

can also say like Stiegler that, in the West, the question of prosthesis – that is
also the question of technics as anamnesis – didn’t come to light until recent
centuries. But the techno-logos is always there, acting like the unconscious, or
the Nachträglichkeit of Freud, which designates at once a deferred action and
also a supplement (Nachtrag). The effectuation of technics depends largely
on the adoption and adaptation which is limited by culture. An ethnic group
adopts technics from another to internalise it (such as China has done to the
peripheral countries), or adapts itself to others’ technics and becomes sub-
ordinated to them. Culture here acts as a stabiliser of technics, either limiting
it or promoting it. However, following the sixteenth century Chinese culture
did not have the tendency to advance its own technics, which did not happen
until the nineteenth century, when it was forced to adopt Western science and
democracy. The situation is different in Japan, which had the consciousness of
“overcoming modernity” before China started on the path to modernisation.
We can speculate that this may be the reason why Nishitani had the sensibility
to discover the problem of time in Asian culture. In comparison with the dis-
orientation of the postmodern, what we have seen above is a disorientation
in a double sense, which is not only the loss of direction, but also the ability of
identification. What is left would only be a politics of identity – the Orient is no
longer oriented, but dis-oriented.

The Nachträglichkeit of Les Immatériaux

Now we see the différend, but it remains virtual, since a dialogue – rather than
a set of speculations – is yet to be initiated. The distance of 30 years since
Les Immatériaux provides the occasion for posing this question again, or for
questioning the question. The initiative of organising an event on Lyotard’s
Les Immatériaux was itself a Nachträglichkeit. Firstly, there was the shock that I
experienced when I came across the work of Nishitani and Bernard Stiegler’s
Technics and Time 2: Disorientation in 2009, when it seemed to me that the
question of a dialogue between the West and the East based on the ques-
tion of technics had remained unanswered, and indeed almost untouched,
for a century. Secondly, Lyotard’s question was deferred, and hence has to
be added, nachgetragen. It is deferred in the sense that his question was not
intelligible to his contemporaries – or at least, in his own words, remained
“too dialectical to take seriously”. 36 It is these two Nachträglichkeiten that
urge us to go back to some questions posed by Lyotard both during the
preparation (including his treatise on Kant and Wittgenstein Le Différend) and
right after the exhibition (including L’inhumain and Le postmoderne expliqué aux
enfants), questions which concerns the radical opening brought by modern
technologies and the speculation on their new possibilities for both the
philosophical “West” and “East”. I tried to approach this intersection of the

36 Lyotard, “Logos and Techne, or Telegraphy”, p. 57.

196 30 Years after Les Immatériaux

Nachträglichkeiten with the question that I posed at the very beginning of this
article: namely, whether the postmodern is a European project. It may be a
European project, but it shouldn’t be a European project; and indeed, it should
serve the occasion for a profound and speculative reflection. No matter how
speculative is the question that Lyotard posed, which we cited at the opening
of this article, it proposes to radically reflect upon both technological progress
and the need to transform it by first reconceptualising it (as we have seen in
terms of a new metaphysics of interaction). Lyotard’s speculation places its
hope in the new materiality that one nowadays calls “digital”. How serious is
this hope, and in what way can one continue to hope?


Lyotard was very much aware of the dangers brought by telecommunication

culture; as he wrote, “the question of a hegemonic teleculture is already
posed”, 37 and he endeavoured to contemplate this new condition and to
search for a metaphysics which is both material and political. What lies behind
the dis-orientation of the postmodern is a desire of a re-orientation, not only
for the Orient, but also for the Occident, since the Occident exists in relation
to the Orient, le différent. Arrive-t-il? Lyotard asked, “what does ‘here’ mean on
the phone, on television, at the receiver of an electronic telescope? And the
now? Does not the ‘tele’ element necessarily obscure the presence, the ‘here-
and-now’ of the forms and their ‘carnal’ reception? What is a place, a moment,
not anchored in the immediate ‘suffer’ of what happens [arrive]. Is a computer
in any way here and now? Can anything happen [arriver] with it? Can anything
happen to it?” 38 Lyotard recalls Heidegger’s Ereignis, and the sublime of Kant,
which manifests itself in this new material condition as a sort of philosophical
resistance. The arrive-t-il, without subject, without content, is however always
haunted by the question qu’arrive-t-il?

In Beijing in 2000, there was an exhibition entitled Post-Material Interpretations

of Everyday Life by Contemporary Chinese Artists, which is said to have been
influenced by Lyotard’s Les Immatériaux.39 The “post-material” in the title was
not meant to indicate something spiritual, but rather, following Lyotard, a new
form of materiality, for example genetic engineering, or artificial intelligence.
At the end of the exhibition’s curatorial statement, the curator Wang Zu wrote:

We know, due to the advancement of technology, that we are confronting

the possibility of developing a new moral, and we will need to build a
new structure of such a moral. Post-material, instead of saying that it

37 Ibid., p. 50.
38 Jean-Francois Lyotard, “Quelque chose comme: communication… sans communication,”
in L’Inhumain: causeries sur le temps (Paris: Galilée, 1988), p. 129.
39 Personal correspondence with Professor WangMingAn of the Beijing Capital Normal
Anamnesis and Re-orientation 197

describes the expansion of material and the decline of the human spirit,
represents their opposition… We will have to create a new moral visuality,
which redefines art, as well as life.40

The logic of this exhibition resembles Lyotard’s. However, one will notice two
puncta in this curatorial statement. Firstly, what is presented is an affirmation
of the disorientation, which no longer distinguishes the West and the East.
Technology becomes a global phenomenon and fundamental to everyday life.
Should this not also be regarded as the problem of historicity that Nishitani
lamented in the 1980s? Secondly, the statement refers to an opposition
between the decline of spirit and the expansion of material, and hence calls
for a new moral, which is fundamentally also a new logic.

In November 2002, the French philosopher Paul Virilio curated an exhibition

entitled Ce qui arrive at the Fondation Cartier in Paris. In this exhibition, Virilio
wanted to draw attention to catastrophes caused by technological devel-
opment in the previous decades, and announced that a reversal of what Aris-
totle distinguished as substance and accidents had taken place. In light of the
anticipation of the normalisation of catastrophes in the twenty-first century,
Virilio hoped to go back to the question of responsibility and reflect on the
problem of industrialisation, which becomes destructive to both corporal and
spiritual beings. Virilio points out that, for Aristotle, accidents serve to reveal
substance; in other words, substance is always accidental; hence what follows
from accidents are new inventions. Accidents are somewhat necessary, since
without them there can be no technological development. But the great dis-
coveries, according to Virilio, also create the great catastrophes. Globalisation,
through techno-logos (and through philosophy), is also a process of the
production of a catastrophe at the scale of nature:

and so it is merely high time that ecological approaches to the various

forms of pollution of the biosphere are finally supplemented by an
eschatological approach to technical progress, to this finiteness without
which dear old globalisation itself risks becoming a life-size catastrophe.41

Virilio condemned the Enlightenment’s notion of progress, and the idea that
the Orient cannot escape from the progress of the Occident. He quoted the
French-Iranian philosopher Daryush Shayegan, who claimed that one cannot
imagine cultures as separate blocks without interpenetration, and that hence
we are all Occidents.42 Virilio mocked Shayegan, claiming that to talk about
“light coming from the Occident” and “a world which cannot escape progress”
is ironic. It is here we see the value of talking about le différend, and the

40 后物质:当代中国艺术家解读日常生活, 北京红门画廊 (21 Oct–30 Nov, 2000), http://www.xu-ruotao.

(my translation).
41 Paul Virilio, The Original Accident, trans. (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2007), p. 24.
42 Paul Virilio, Ce qui arrive (Paris: Galilée, 2002), p. 89.
198 30 Years after Les Immatériaux

resistance to progress and the universalisation of the teleculture. Indeed, if it

does not take the question of technics and anamnesis seriously, I am not sure
whether the philosophical East can inspire the West any further than what
Lyotard took from Dôgen.

Re-orientation: an Anamnesic Resistance?

As the question of disorientation takes the new shape of a global dis-

orientation, Heidegger’s critique of technology seems to echo from time to
time. In the dawn of the digital age, didn’t we already see the return of the
Californian Zen, which was once called Californian Ideology? What will be
the difference that is to be shaped? I feel that after modernisation in Asia,
these questions are no longer asked. Today if we take up the question by
Lyotard, the task will be to look into the materiality of the digital and the new
technological condition accompanied with it, in order to find a possibility that
may preserve the différend, or even multiply the différend.

Lyotard was very brave to raise this question, which demands a new logic
of thinking about technology, and a turning against technology in order to
explore its possibility. It is no longer the logic that functions within machines,
but rather a logic that liberates beings from such a strictly formalized
thinking. Or maybe we can refer to what Socrates reveals in his challenge in
the Protagoras, the techne of all technai, a thinking that governs all practical
technics. Socrates has chosen reason, and set a beginning of Western
philosophy separated from the pre-Socratic metaphysical thinking. But
this reason, as we have seen in Lyotard’s thinking, has to be problematized
by introducing the Other, both a mirror and a clear mirror. The interaction
model, for Lyotard, is the possibility of dismantling the constant upādāna of
creation. If here the new materiality allows us to rethink the tradition of the
philosophical West, it is equally significant for the philosophical East to rethink
the question of anamnesis from another direction. In this sense, we may
understand why Heidegger refuses to seek any solution in the East, as he says
in the famous Der Spiegel interview “Only a god can save us”:

my conviction is that only in the same place where the modern technical
world took its origin can we also prepare a conversion [Umkehr] of it. In
other words, this cannot happen by taking over Zen Buddhism or other
Eastern experiences of the world. For this conversion of thought we need
the help of the European tradition and a new appropriation of it. Thought
will be transformed only through thought that has the same origin and

43 Martin Heidegger, “Nur noch ein Gott kann uns retten”, Der Spiegel 30 (Mai, 1976):
193–219. Trans. by W. Richardson as “Only a God Can Save Us” in Heidegger: The Man and
the Thinker (1981), ed. T. Sheehan, p. 45–67.
Anamnesis and Re-orientation 199

Here lies both the affinity and difference between Lyotard and Heidegger.
Lyotard is more open to dialogue, to the radical possibility of the différend.
Indeed, the reason to look for the différend is not to destroy the differences,
but rather to recognize the “inevitable and inescapable possibility of
heterogeneity”. 44 But how is this possible in the case of Lyotard, with his
insistence on the Other? Lyotard gave a response to this question, and I think
this will perhaps be the starting point for reflecting on a possible project of
re-orientation through the practice of an anamnesic resistance. I summarise
this response in terms of three points: writing, origin and system, though we
have to bear in mind that such a summary may not really reflect the system-
atic thinking of Lyotard.

Writing. Lyotard had difficulty providing an example of the new technology

that he imagined, which can realize the potential of such anamnesic resist-
ance. He writes: “The only thing I can see that can bear comparison with this
a-technical or a-technological rule is writing”. 45 Writing also distinguishes the
anamnesis of Lyotard from that of Freud, since Freud’s anamnesis is limited
to free association, while for Lyotard it is the production of work. Anamnesis
is originally an interminable process; however, in the case of psychoanalysis
it is brought to an end when the treatment is complete; while in the case of
artistic creation (including writing), the artists stop since labour is no longer
indispensable. What marks the difference between these two ends is the work
of the artists – which is also the mnemotechnics. Lyotard speculates on a
passing which is not psychoanalytical, but rather a form of resistance against
the techno-logos:

We envisage this writing as passing or anamnesis in both writers and

artists (it’s clearly Cezanne’s working-through) as a resistance (in what
I think is a non-psychoanalytical sense, more like that of Winston in
Orwell’s 1984) to the syntheses of breaching and scanning. A resistance to
clever programmes and fat telegrams.46

Winston is further mentioned in the chapter entitled Glose sur la résistance in

Le Postmoderne expliqué aux enfants. We recall that Winston decides to write a
diary to express what he thinks and feels, as an act of rebellion. It will be inter-
esting to ask: a rebellion against what, when the law doesn’t exist any more?
Winston has no idea of the exact date. It is not the anamnesis of an historical
event, but rather an act of resistance to the systematic stupidity of the Party.
Lyotard turned to the examples of Benjamin’s micrology named by Adorno.
In One Way Street and Berlin Childhood, what is presented is not the story of
childhood, but rather the childhood of events; to put it in another way, what

44 Michel Olivier, “Le différent, ou la question de l’enchaînement”, in Les Transformateurs

Lyotard (Paris: Édition Hermann, 2008), p. 211.
45 Lyotard, “Logos and Techne, or Telegraphy”, p. 56
46 Ibid.
200 30 Years after Les Immatériaux

is inscribed is the potential of infinitization instead of the completion of a his-

tory. The stories only inscribe their ungraspability.

The question of writing enabled by the new technology was one of the central
themes of Les Immatériaux. Together with Thierry Chaput, Lyotard set upan
experiment entitled Épreuve d’écriture, which was what one today calls collab-
orative writing, with Bruno Latour, Jacques Derrida, Christine Buci-Glucksman,
Isabelle Stengers and others, creating entries of keywords and commenting
on each other’s entries. Even though today, with the digital networks, we
can write through blogging, social networking, audio-visual creation, coding
and so on, a systematic programme on writing as resistance, aside from
its journalistic value, still has to be thought through; not only a task for the
intellectuals, as demonstrated in the Épreuve d’écriture, but also for the public.

Origin. The origin is the ungraspable. The philosophical East paid little
attention to the relation between the origin and the support. The anamnesis
of the origin for Lyotard is not a return to the origin that designates a
place and date of an event, but rather the unknownable, which cannot be
inscribed. Such an origin, however, has its support in writing; that is to say,
the anamnesis can take place through writing, but also escapes being written.
If anamnesis is like language, moving from one phrase to another, it needs
chains (enchaînement) in order for it to reach the referent. The principle of
the anamnesis, according to Lyotard, emphasises the fact that “’reason’ for
the chain is never presentable in terms of a past event (originary scene). It
is immemorial”.47 The unknowable presents itself in the thing and the voice,
which serve as calls, or rather as motifs, for the reconstruction of the lost

In a lecture entitled Philosophie et Origine given to first year undergraduates at

the Sorbonne in 1964, Lyotard started with a reflection on Hegel’s first major
philosophical work, the which marked his separation with Schelling and Fichte,
The Difference Between Fichte’s and Schelling’s Systems of Philosophy (1801). Hegel
described the birth of philosophy as a response to the loss of the force of uni-
fication of human communities: “When the might of union vanishes from the
life of men and the antitheses lose their living connection and reciprocity and
gain independence, the need of philosophy arises.48 ” Philosophy was born in
order to retrieve the lost unity (this became even clearer in Hegel’s Lectures on
the Philosophy of History, 1837). Philosophy is not history per se, which traces
the happening of this event, but rather seeks to recover it from the present
moment, writes Lyotard, “the origin of philosophy is today”.49 The origin escapes
both writing and philosophy and serves as the condition of philosophizing,

47 Lyotard, “Anamnesis of the Visible”, p. 109.

48 G. W. F. Hegel, The difference between Fichte’s and Schelling’s system of philosophy, trans. H.
S. Harris and Walter Cerf (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1977), p. 91.
49 Jean-Francois Lyotard, Pourquoi philosopher? (Paris: PUF, 2012), p. 61.
Anamnesis and Re-orientation 201

while the possibility of philosophizing resides in the act of writing and

searching; on the other hand, the origin without support and its practice of
anamnesis is also the source of the dis-orientation that we have described

System. Although Lyotard adopted Hegel’s conception of the task of philosophy

as the restoration of original unity, he moved away from Hegel’s tendency
towards systematisation (let us recall that Hegel stands as the most system-
atic of the German Idealists). The act of anamnesis is one of resistance against
systematisation. Lyotard spoke of the system as what survived the ruins of the
bourgeois world after the crisis of capitalism, two World Wars, and the exter-
mination of European Jews. 50 Systematization, according to Lyotard, is the
domination of humans and nature by reason. The politics of anamnesis is a
politics that seeks the incalculable, something both of this reason and against
it. Thirty years after Les Immatériaux, the new materiality described by Lyotard
has not taken the direction that he envisaged, but rather has led to a new
mode of reification and control, which Bernard Stiegler calls “hypermaterial”.
In China, the rapid adoption of technologies has led to a misery of pollution in
all aspects: water, food, soil, and blood. Economic and technological progress
today enjoys the speed of moving into the impossibility of anamnesis, of
both the unknown and historicity. This consists in the necessity of resisting
the smart programmes or fat telegrams. I hope that the elaboration of
the différend concerning anamnesis in the two genres of discourse of the
philosophical West and East, however, can become a supplement (Nachtrag)
to each other. There is probably no better way to end this article than by citing
the last sentence of Lyotard’s “Logos, Techne or Telegraphy”:

I’ll stop on this vague hope, which is too dialectical to take seriously. All
this remains to be thought out, tried out. 51

50 Lyotard, “Anamnesis of the Visible”, p. 117.

51 Lyotard, “Logos and Techne, or Telegraphy”, p. 57.
The Silence of God

Charlie Gere

In this chapter I take as my starting point Natalie Heinich’s description of the

use of headphones in Les Immatériaux:

In the absence of a guided tour, visitors to Les Immatériaux had to wear

earphones, through which they could hear human speech. The voices
streaming through the earphones did not provide any direct “explanation“
of what the visitor had in sight, but rather unidentified fragments of dis-
course indirectly related to what they were supposed to comment on,
without requiring the visitor to press a button in front of each exhibit.
Most visitors did not make the connection between the voices and their
own movement through the exhibition, which inevitably led to some
colourful misunderstandings …1

The fragments in question were excerpts from literary and philosophical

works by, among others, Blanchot and Beckett. The “earphones“ or headsets,
which were wirelessly controlled and supplied by Philips, kept breaking down
(unsurprisingly given that the technology they embodied was then highly
experimental). That, and the fact that the Pompidou both obliged visitors to
use them and also charged for them, made their inclusion in the exhibition
highly controversial.

Eight years after Les Immatériaux Lyotard gave a paper at the Collège Inter-
nationale de Philosophie in Paris, entitled “On a Hyphen“, 2 about the apostle

1 Nathalie Heinich, “Les Immatériaux Revisited: Innovation in Innovations”. Tate Papers

(online) 12. 2009.
2 Jean-François Lyotard, The Hyphen: Between Judaism and Christianity (Amherst, New York:
Humanity Books, 1999).
204 30 Years after Les Immatériaux

Paul, thus anticipating the recent revival of interest in him by over half a
decade. In it he gave a reading of Paul as exemplary of the hyphen between
the words “Judeo“ and “Christian“. Among Lyotard’s concerns in this essay is
that of “the Voice”. Lyotard contrasts the inaccessibility of God’s voice for the
Jews with its manifestation in the incarnation of Christ. This can be under-
stood, in part at least, as a means for Lyotard to work through some questions
of language, in particular the Judaic paradigm of the absent letter and the
Christian model of incarnated language. It is in this context that the discursive
and audio experiments of Les Immatériaux can be understood, as articulations
of the relationship between Judaism, ethics and the text.

Lyotard opens “On a Hyphen“ by saying that he will be “speaking of a white

space or blank [blanc], the one that is crossed out by the trait or line uniting
Jew and Christian in the expression ‘Judeo-Christian’”. 3 Then, describing the
Jewish experience of God, he continues: “The Voice leaves its letters without
vowels unvoiced on desert stone. It leaves them to be pronounced by a people
so that this people may rejoice in having been picked out by it“.4 Thus the
Voice, which is not temporal, obliges the people to “act these letters“. Lyotard
understands this to be the basis upon which what Christians would call the
Bible or Scripture is received. The Hebrew word for the Bible is Miqra, which
means “convocation, reading, festive celebration“, and it is the “command-
ment to act by way of letters left by the Voice without history“ that “destines
the people who accepts and receives this commandment to a historicity
without precedent in human cultures“. 5 In being destined thus, to a historicity
that is both about what has happened, and about the temporal meaning and
direction of that which has happened, the people find reality unfulfilled and
therefore demand justice in everyday life.6 Because the Voice is not in time,
time is the time of death, the time of the withdrawal of the Voice; but it is also
the time in which the people “are called together, called upon to voice, to raise
their voices together, to read aloud, and to celebrate the letters of protection
and of the promise“.7 It is because Adam desired to speak the language of
the Voice immediately, without suffering, complication or history, that he is
expelled from Paradise, into historicity. 8 This historicity, however, is also a call
“to act the letter of the Voice“, inasmuch as the letters promise Paradise.

In order to explain this, Lyotard turns to what he calls a “[t]raditional exegesis“,

one that finds in the Hebrew word for “orchard“, pardes, from which we derive
our word “paradise”, the model of the four ways in which the Torah, the first
five books of the Miqra or Tanakh (or what Christians call the Old Testament),

3 Ibid., p. 13.
4 Ibid.
5 Ibid.
6 Ibid.
7 Ibid., p. 13–14.
8 Ibid., p. 14.
The Silence of God 205

should be read: P stands for peshat, the literal meaning; R for remez, the
allusive or allegorical meaning; D for drash, the meaning to be exacted,
the moral meaning; and finally S for sod, the secret, hidden or inaccessible

It is by means of the presence of this unattainable meaning in the

tradition of reading that the Voice remains withdrawn, no longer as death
in time but as the perpetually desired.9

Lyotard suggests that Paradise is the fulfilment of the four meanings, but he
also asks what it means to fulfil a meaning that is sod, posited as estranged?10
It is at this point that he brings in St Paul – or, as he calls him, “Shaoul the
Pharisee from Tarsus, a Roman citizen who goes by the name Paulus“ – and
through him unpacks the meaning of the hyphen in “Judeo-Christian“.11 In
effect, what Lyotard proposes is that “the mystery of the Cross“ proclaimed
by Paul sublates “the position … that the reading of the letters by the people
reserves for the Voice“.12 Through Christ the Word is made flesh, and comes
among us, and in doing so the “Voice voices itself by itself“ and asks “not so
much to be scrupulously examined, interpreted, understood, and acted, so as
to make justice reign, but loved“. Thus “[t]he Incarnation is a gesture of love.
The Voice that was in paradise banishes itself from this paradise and comes to
live and die with the sons of Adam“.13 The hyphen between “Judeo“ and “Chris-
tian“, then, is the “mortification of the first by the dialectic of the second. The
truth of the Jew is in the Christian“. “Christian breath“ reanimates the dead
Jew, who is otherwise left to his letter.14

The Incarnation “expressly disavows the flesh of letters“, and, because it is a

mystery, it “exceeds the secret meaning, the sod, of the letter left by the invis-
ible Voice”, as it is “the voiced Voice, the Voice made flesh“.15 In the Miqra, the
Voice can perform miracles, which act as signs for the people chosen by the
Lord, who need signs. The Incarnation is not a miracle, however, but a mys-
tery, which “destroys the regimen of every reading“ and “offers nothing to be
understood or interpreted“.16 With Jesus “[t]he Voice is no longer deposited
in traces … no longer marks itself in absence … is no longer to be deciphered
through signs“.17 “Reading is in vain“ because “presence is real“ in the Host,

9 Ibid.
10 Ibid.
11 Ibid, p. 14–15.
12 Ibid, p. 15.
13 Ibid.
14 Ibid.
15 Ibid, p. 22.
16 Ibid.
17 Ibid.
206 30 Years after Les Immatériaux

or in the experience of Doubting Thomas in putting his fingers in Christ’s


For Lyotard the dialectical sublation of the Jewish letter by the Christian
Incarnation, in which the Voice voices, is ethically problematic. The Torah is
not the Voice, but “its deposited letter“ and the “language of the Other is not
dead but estranged or foreign“.19 Thus “the grounds for ethics … has to do with
respecting this foreignness“. 20 The other is always a letter that requires the
risky and lengthy process of “decipherment, vocalization, cantillation, setting
to rhythm, translation, and interpretation“. 21 These are not incarnations of the
Voice, and are subject to the interdiction against figuration, which is also an
interdiction against incarnation, and against making the Voice speak directly
and visibly. 22 The Incarnation is the revocation of foreignness, whereas ethics
is only possible if foreignness is preserved. By contrast with the Incarnation,
“it is enough to want what the Other wants to say, what the Other means, to
desire what it desires, to live its loving me enough for me to lose the love of
myself; it is enough to have this faith in order to be justified, before the letter
of any reading“. 23

For Lyotard, the Christian dialectical sublation of the gap between Judaism
and the Christianity necessitates the repression and forgetting of the former
by the latter. Thus, for Lyotard, the “jews“ (in lower case and plural) come
to represent the outsider, the “other“, who disrupts that which needs to be
excised in order that the West can realize its dream of unbounded fulfilment
and development. Thus, the Pauline dialectical move is part of the Western
disavowal of heterogeneity and difference, a disavowal that will ultimately
lead to Auschwitz.

It is with a discussion of Auschwitz that Lyotard begins his major work The
Differend, which is also the book he had just completed when he started work
on Les Immatériaux. Lyotard recounts Holocaust denier Robert Faurisson’s
claim that the gas chambers did not exist (on the grounds that there were
no witnesses to their use) as an example of a differend inasmuch as the gas
chambers’ existence cannot be judged according to the standards of his-
torical proof demanded by Faurisson. 24 There is a close connection between
Lyotard’s understanding of the impossibility of witnessing Auschwitz, and that
of Giorgio Agamben, especially in the latter’s book Remnants of Auschwitz, in
which Agamben is also concerned with, among other things, the question of

18 Ibid.
19 Ibid., p. 24.
20 Ibid.
21 Ibid.
22 Ibid.
23 Ibid, p. 25.
24 Jean-François Lyotard, The Differend: Phrases in Dispute (Minneapolis: University of
Minnesota Press, 1989).
The Silence of God 207

testimony. 25 Remnants of Auschwitz is possibly Agamben’s most controversial

book, in that in it the camp is understood as a paradigm of the contemporary
biopolitical apparatus of the state. Perhaps even more troublingly, Agamben
seems to ascribe a kind of Christ-like status to the figure of “the Muselmann”
(literally: the Muslim), the camp inmate who has given up any form of resist-
ance and is thus marked for imminent death. Remnants of Auschwitz also
involves a working-through of Agamben’s antinomianism, inasmuch as he sees
attempts to understand the ethical dimensions of Auschwitz in legal terms as
misguided. This antinomianism will find further expression in Agamben’s own
engagement with St Paul in The Time That Remains.26

It is interesting to note the number of points at which Lyotard’s points of

reference intersect with or parallel those of Agamben, including not just
Auschwitz and Paul, but also the question of the Voice, and even the Talmudic
exegesis of Paradise, or Pardes, discussed by Lyotard and described earlier.
Indeed it is with this analysis that Agamben begins his essay “Pardes: The
Writing of Potentiality“. He recounts a story from the Talmudic treatise
Hagigah (or “Offering“), which goes as follows:

Four rabbis entered Pardes: Ben Azzai, Ben Zoma, Aher, and Rabbi Akiba.
Rabbi Akiba says, “When you reach the stones of pure marble, do not say:
“Water, Water!“ For it has been said that he who says what is false will not be
placed before My eyes.” Ben Azzai cast a glance and died. Of him Scripture
says: precious to the eyes of the Lord is the death of his saints. Ben Zoma
looked and went mad. Of him Scripture says: have you found honey? Eat as
much as you can, otherwise you will be full and you will vomit. Aher cut the
branches. Rabbi Akiba left unharmed. 27

Agamben points out that “according to rabbinical tradition, Pardes … signifies

supreme knowledge“, and in the Kabbalah, the Shechinah or “presence of God”
is called “Pardes ha-torah, the paradise of the Torah, its fulfilled revelation”,
and the “entry of the four rabbis into Pardes is therefore a figure for access
to supreme knowledge“. 28 In this understanding, the cutting of the branches
by Aher means the isolation of the Shechinah from the other sefiroth – the
attributes or words of God – and its comprehension as an autonomous
power. 29 Inasmuch as the Shechinah is the last of the ten sefiroth, by cutting the
branches of the other sefiroth, Aher separates the knowledge and revelation
of God from other aspects of divinity. 30 This is identified with the sin of Adam,

25 Giorgio Agamben, Remnants of Auschwitz (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1999).

26 Giorgio Agamben, The Time That Remains: A Commentary on the Romans (Stanford, Calif.:
Stanford University Press, 2005).
27 Giorgio Agamben, Potentialities: Collected Essays in Philosophy (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford
University Press, 1999).
28 Ibid., p. 206.
29 Ibid.
30 Ibid.
208 30 Years after Les Immatériaux

who, rather than contemplating the totality of the sefiroth, preferred to con-
template only the last one, and in doing so, separated the tree of knowledge
from the tree of life. 31

Agamben offers another interpretation, from Moses of Leon, author of the

Zohar, the foundational work of the Kabbalah, which seems to be that also
invoked by Lyotard in his essay on Paul. Moses suggests that the aggadah is
a parable of the exegesis of the sacred text, and it is he who proposes the
reading of the word Pardes in which P stands for peshat, the literal meaning;
R to remez, the allusive or allegorical meaning; D for drash, the meaning to
be exacted, the moral meaning; and finally S for sod, the secret, hidden or
inaccessible meaning. 32 Therefore Ben Azzai, who dies, is the literal meaning;
Ben Zoma, who goes mad, is the Talmudic sense, to be extracted; Aher, who
cuts the branches, is the allegorical sense; and Rabbi Akiba, who enters and
leaves unharmed, is the mystical sense. From this perspective Aher’s sin
involves “the moral risk implicit in every act of interpretation, in every con-
frontation with a text or discourse, whether human or divine“. 33 The risk in
question is that “speech, which is nothing other than the manifestation and
unconcealment of something, may be separated from what is reveals and
acquire an autonomous consistency“. 34 Agamben continues:

The cutting of the branches is, therefore, an experimentum linguae, an

experience of language that consists in separating speech both from the
voice and pronunciation from its reference. A pure word isolated in itself,
with neither voice nor referent, with its semantic value indefinitely sus-
pended: this is the dwelling of Aher, the “Other,” in Paradise. This is why
he can neither perish in Paradise by adhering to meaning, like Ben Zoma
and Ben Azzai, nor leave unharmed, like Rabbi Akiba. He fully experiences
the exile of the Shechinah, that is, human language. 35

The essay then goes on to suggest that the story of Aher, the “Other“, is also
a way of thinking about the work of Jacques Derrida. 36 For Agamben Derrida
is Aher, the other, who cut the branches, and who remains still mired in
metaphysics (and, by implication, Agamben himself is Rabbi Akiba). Jeffrey
Librett suggests that Agamben sees Derrida as suffering from a “graphocen-
trism“ as problematic as the logocentrism Derrida charges other philosophers
with. 37 For Agamben philosophy is always already fixated on the “gramma“,
because the voice “even when it has been posited as origin, is always posited

31 Ibid.
32 Ibid., p. 207.
33 Ibid.
34 Ibid.
35 Ibid.
36 Ibid., p. 209.
37 Jeffrey S. Librett, “From the Sacrifice of the Letter to the Voice of Testimony: Giorgio
Agamben’s Fulfillment of Metaphysics.” Diacritics 3 (2–3) (2007), p. 11–33.
The Silence of God 209

as lost, as an origin that has already been replaced by the letter“. 38 Libbett
sees Agamben’s “animus against the letter“ 39 as “powerfully and explicitly
overdetermined by Christian thinking, in the Pauline tradition, as the
metaphysics that poses God qua logos by polemicizing, in favor of the living
spirit (spirit as life), against the ‘dead letter’ of the law“.40 It is this that leads
Agamben, in his book on St Paul, to criticize deconstruction as a “thwarted
messianism“ of “infinite deferment“. 41

Perhaps Agamben can be understood to be performing the very sublation

and repression of the Jewish letter that Lyotard sees being undertaken
by Paul. And perhaps Les Immatériaux can be understood as an attempt
by Lyotard to resist this kind of sublation, in which the singular becomes
a universal paradigm. Along with 25 or so other participants, including
writers, philosophers and scientists, Derrida participated in an “experiment
in collective, writings, interactive and at a distance, on microcomputers,
equipped with word processing and communication software“ that was
launched two months before the exhibition opened. Each participant was lent
an Olivetti M20, connected to the PTT network, and was asked to respond to a
list of 50 words given to them by Lyotard. The results were then collated and
made available to exhibition visitors on Olivetti M24 workstations, and also
in the second of the two publications accompanying the exhibition, entitled
Epreuves d’écriture.

Derrida remarks upon his participation in Les Immatériaux in his piece written
on the occasion of Lyotard’s death, “Lyotard and us“. As is sometimes the case
with Derrida, the essay is also a meditation on a phrase, in this case “there
will be no mourning“, which Derrida “extracted“ from a piece of writing by
Lyotard entitled “Notes du traducteur“, or “Translator’s Notes“.42 In this piece,
written for a journal special issue dedicated to Derrida, Lyotard, in Derrida’s
words, “plays at responding to texts which I had, upon his request, written
in 1984, for the great exhibition Les Immatériaux.”43 Declining the opportunity
to say more about “the calculated randomness of this exhibition and the
chance J.F.’s invitation opened for me, namely the perfect machinic occasion
to learn, despite my previous reluctance, to use a word processing machine
– thus setting on a dependence which lasts to this day“, Derrida chooses
instead to discuss what he calls a “minor debt“ which at first “seems technical
or machinic, but because of its techno-machinic effacement of singularity
and thus of destinal unicity, you will see very soon its essential link with the
sentence I had to begin with, the one which had already surrounded and taken

38 Ibid., p. 12.
39 Ibid., p. 12.
40 Ibid., p. 15.
41 Giorgio Agamben, The Time That Remains, p. 103.
42 Jacques Derrida, “Lyotard and us,” Parallax, 6 (4) (2000), p. 28–48.
43 Ibid., p. 37.
210 30 Years after Les Immatériaux

over me, ‘there shall be no mourning’”.44 Though Derrida and Lyotard had
always used the formal “vous“, in his text for the exhibition Derrida

played with a “tu“ devoid of assignable addressee, taking away from

the chance reader the possibility to decide whether that “tu“ singularly
addressed the receiving or reading instance, that is, whoever, in the
public space of publication, happened to read it, or instead, what is
altogether different, altogether other, this or that particular private if not
cryptic addressee – the point of all these both sophisticated and naive
procedures being, among others, to upset, sometimes frighten, at the
limit, the limit itself, all borders, for instance those between private and
public, singular and general or universal, intimate or inner and outer, etc.
In doing so, I had pretended to challenge whosoever was addressed by
this tu to translate the idiomatic phrasing of many of my sentences, to
translate it into another language (interlinguistic translation, in Jakobson’s
terms), or even to translate it into the same language (intralinguistic
translation), or even into another system of signs (music or painting,
for instance: intersemiotic translation). Accordingly, after this or that
sentence which I considered untranslatable, and after a period, I would
regularly add the infinitive form of the ironic order or the imperative
challenge: “traduire“/“translate“.45

The challenge to translate that Derrida throws down in his texts for Les
Immatériaux is what Lyotard responds to in his “Notes du traducteur“. As
Derrida puts it, Lyotard “seriously plays at imagining the notes of a virtual
translator. He does so under four headings which I will only mention, leaving
you to read these eight pages worth centuries of Talmudic commentary“.46

In the phrase “the limit itself, all borders, for instance those between private
and public, singular and general or universal, intimate or inner and outer“ I
think it is possible to hear an echo of Agamben’s description of the camp in his
essay “The Camp as Nomos of the Modern“:

Whoever entered the camp moved in a zone of indistinction between

outside and inside, exception and rule, licit and illicit, in which the very
concepts of subjective right and juridical protection no longer made any
sense. 47

In his essay about Les Immatériaux from the “Landmark Exhibitions” issue
of Tate Papers, reprinted in this volume, Antony Hudek (who was co-trans-
lator of the recent English version of Discours Figure) explicitly connects

44 Ibid., p. 37.
45 Ibid., p. 38.
46 Ibid.
47 Giorgio Agamben, “The Camp as the ‘Nomos’ of the Modern”, in Homo Sacer: Sovereign
Power and Bare Life (Stanford, Calif: Stanford University Press, 1998).
The Silence of God 211

Les Immatériaux with Auschwitz. He quotes Lyotard’s response to Michel

Cournot’s scathing critique in Le Monde, particularly of the technology such
as the headsets. Referring to the “postmodern”, a term Lyotard himself was
responsible for propagating in his 1979 work The Postmodern Condition, Lyotard
suggests that

Mr Cournot wanted to revel in the jubilation offered by the new mas-

tery promised by the “technologists”, by the prophets of a “postmodern”
break? The exhibition denies it, and this is precisely its gambit – to not
offer any reassurance, especially and above all by prophesying a new
dawn. To make us look at what is “déjà vu”, as Duchamp did with the
readymades, and to make us unlearn what is “familiar” to us: these are
instead the exhibition’s concerns. 48

Lyotard continues:

The idea of progress bequeathed by, among others, the Enlightenment,

has faltered, and with it a triumphant humanism. Greatness of thought
– Adorno’s for example (must I spell his name out?) – is to endure the
fright derived from such a withdrawal of meaning, to bear witness to it, to
attempt its anamnesis. 49

Following Lyotard’s analysis of painting, Hudek suggests that Les Immatériaux

offers the chance of an anamnesic working-through of the past, and offered
him “the opportunity to work through the haunting of La Condition post-
moderne … providing him with a stage upon which to perform the transition
from an epochal or modal postmodern into an allegorical or anamnesic one“. 50
Hudek remarks that the subtitle for Les Immatériaux might have been L’Esprit
du Temps, which echoes the name of the 1982 exhibition of painting, Zeitgeist,
and suggests that Lyotard attempted to “reclaim the postmodern from the
version of the term“ made fashionable by such exhibitions. 51 As Hudek puts it:

Lyotard’s own version of a postmodern Zeitgeist at the Centre Pompidou

was an affective hovering between the “post“ he had imprudently
prognosticated in 1979 and a lost modernism that could never again be
brought back to life. This paradoxical temporal stasis would provide the
clearest sign, not of the decline of the twentieth-century avant-garde
as such, but of the end of the possibility of recuperating it to justify
an increasingly complex and progressively dehumanised technos-
cientific environment. For Lyotard, the historical break in the telling of

48 Antony Hudek, “From Over- to Sub-Exposure: The Anamnesis of Les Immatériaux.” Tate
Papers [online] 12. 2009, reprinted in this volume, p. 79.
49 Ibid., p. 79–80.
50 Ibid., p. 81.
51 Ibid.
212 30 Years after Les Immatériaux

twentieth-century history is marked – as it was for many before him,

particularly Adorno – by the mass murder of the Jews during the Second
World War. 52

He goes on to quote Lyotard himself from the essay:

Following Theodor Adorno, I have used the term “Auschwitz“ to indicate

the extent to which the stuff [matière] of recent Western history appears
inconsistent in light of the “modern“ project of emancipating humanity.
What kind of reflection is capable of “lifting“, in the sense of aufheben,
“Auschwitz“, by placing it in a general, empirical and even speculative
process directed towards universal emancipation? There is a kind of
sorrow [chagrin] in the Zeitgeist, which can express itself through reactive,
even reactionary attitudes, or through utopias, but not through an
orientation that would positively open a new perspective. 53

Hudek singles out the word “sorrow“ (“chagrin“ in French), and suggests how
striking it is that this element is overlooked in the literature of Les Immatériaux.
He points out how it is a key term in the French experience of the “stalled
remembrance“ of the Second World War, as evinced in works such as Marcel
Ophuls’ Le Chagrin et la pitié (The Sorrow and the Pity). 54 Taking his cue from
Le Differend, Hudek suggests that Les Immatériaux stages an experience of
temporal indecision, of the “Arrive-t-il?“. 55 In Hudek’s words, “Les Immatériaux
staged an experience of ‘sorrow’ meant to give rise to a profoundly negative
feeling – a feeling the visitor could not possibly have escaped as she wandered
through the dark maze of the Centre Pompidou, confronted by the endless
choices to determine a trajectory without any identifiable goal in sight”. 56

Thus, Les Immatériaux might be regarded as a kind of unconscious, pre-

emptive response to Agamben’s form of Pauline, messianic politics. In its very
difficulty and confusion it refused the sublation of Auschwitz into a universal
category of contemporary human experience. It is perhaps worth thinking
of Les Immatériaux as an alternative museological response to the Shoah, an
alternative to the Holocaust museums that were beginning to proliferate at
that time and which precisely risked (and continue to risk) the “museification“
of what they contain, and its making sacred and paradigmatic.

Returning, then, to the earpieces or headphones, and the texts they

relayed to the visitors to Les Immatériaux: among these texts were some by
Samuel Beckett, the artist whose work Adorno had proclaimed as the most
appropriate artistic response to Auschwitz, not least because it did not

52 Ibid., p. 82.
53 Ibid.
54 Ibid.
55 Ibid.
56 Ibid., p. 83.
The Silence of God 213

attempt to engage directly with the Shoah. Yet perhaps even more apt – albeit
unintentionally – was the fact that the headphones frequently malfunctioned,
producing perhaps what André Neher, writing about Auschwitz, called “the
silence of God“. 57

57 André Neher, The Exile of the Word: From the Silence of the Bible to the Silence of Auschwitz
(Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society of America, 1981).
Immaterials, Exhibition,

Robin Mackay

Les Immatériaux,1 the exhibition staged by design theorist Thierry Chaput and
philosopher Jean-François Lyotard at the Centre Pompidou in Paris in 1985,
confronted an accelerating cycle in which technological instruments afford
us a grasp of matter beyond the human perceptual gamut, decomposing the
structure of objects into systems of imperceptible elements which are then
recomposed, predominantly through the use of machine languages, into new
materials. (The term “immaterials” therefore refers to these new materials
and their retroactive effect upon our conception of matter as such; not to any
notion of the dematerialised, incorporeal or disembodied).

According to the proposition of Les Immatériaux, these new developments

disrupt the notion of matter as something destined for and subservient to
human projects. Rather than a stable set of materials ready for use, we are
faced with an unstable set of interactions that problematise apparently stable
polarities such as mind versus matter, hardware versus software, matter
versus form, matter versus state, and matter versus energy.

In its attempt to articulate this rupture and its repercussions in the form of
a public exhibition, Les Immatériaux can be regarded as a pivotal moment in
the convergence of philosophy, art and exhibition-making. It enables us to
take a critical look at a set of intertwined tendencies related to what we might

1 My acquaintance with Les Immatériaux has emerged over the course of many discus-
sions, initially with composer Florian Hecker, and, more recently, with philosopher Yuk
Hui. This text is drawn from presentations made at several symposia during the course
of 2014: at the exhibition Speculations on Anonymous Materials at the Fridericianum in
Kassel, at 30 Years after Les Immatériaux at the Centre for Digital Cultures at the Leu-
phana University of Lüneberg, and at Megarave-Metarave at Wallriss in Fribourg.
216 30 Years after Les Immatériaux

call “the postmodern moment”, which include the emergence of theoretical

and/or philosophical thought as a constituent part of exhibition-making and,
conversely, the emergence of the contemporary art exhibition as an inter-
national arena for (something like) philosophical discourse; exhibition-making
as a collective dramatisation of the contemporary conjuncture; and the
instrumentalisation of this practice as a mode of cultural capitalisation.

In the following, I first argue for the continuing relevance of the concept
of “immaterials” for us today, then go on to examine the exhibition itself,
detailing its historical and institutional context and scrutinizing Lyotard’s
philosophical and extra-philosophical motivations for entering into the
unknown territory of this crossover between disciplines and genres. I suggest
that the intentions and means of Les Immatériaux should be re-evaluated in
the light of the norms, politics and economics of the globalised contemporary
art scene that has developed since the time of Les Immatériaux, many facets of
which were anticipated by the 1985 exhibition. Finally, I ask whether the ques-
tion of “accelerationism” emerging in contemporary philosophy today (which
is strongly linked to a certain turn in Lyotard’s thinking at the time of Les
Immatériaux) might provide a way to reorient the impulse of Les Immatériaux
outside of what have now become institutional constraints.

Immaterials Today
In the 1990s, working with a colony of narcoleptic dogs that had been bred in
captivity for several generations in a research facility in Stanford, scientists
finally identified the damaged gene responsible for their dynasty of sleepy
canines: these dogs lacked a receptor for a neurotransmitter chemical that
would later be named orexin. This chemical had been identified in the late
‘90s as having an appetite-stimulating effect, and had been earmarked for
future obesity research. The discovery at Stanford opened up a different
destiny for it, and suggested a novel approach to the development of sleep
drugs: whereas scientists had formerly aimed to find neurochemical agents
that would encourage the onset of sleep – something that a whole generation
of drugs had achieved only by adopting a crude “sledgehammer” approach –
research now became focused on blocking the reception of a chemical that is
instrumental in keeping the brain in a waking state.

The pharmaceutical giant Merck conducted a computer-controlled chemical

scan of a library of three million compounds, compounds which themselves
were the by-products of other (both successful and unsuccessful) research
projects. A sample of each of these compounds was introduced in turn into a
“cellular soup derived from human cells and modified to act as a surrogate of
the brain”. An agent was added that would react with orexin and glow if it was
present. This automated process was filmed automatically and, over three
Immaterials, Exhibition, Acceleration 217

weeks, the plates that failed to light up were reduced down to a few for further
testing. The resulting new drug is currently under review by the Federal Drug
Administration and is expected to come to market shortly. 2

This type of procedure is in more general use as a technique in materials

science called “high-throughput computational design”, which is expected
to replace the trial-and-error techniques previously used in developing new
materials. It combines the resources of massive computing power and a
growing knowledge of how desired properties such as hardness, conductivity,
colour, etc., can be attributed to quantum-level characteristics of matter.
Once they have identified the low-level configurations of matter that give rise
to a certain desired property – its “fundamental descriptor” – scientists at
the Materials Project at Berkeley3 can “access, search, screen and compare” a
database of tens of thousands of inorganic materials for candidates. A “golden
age of materials design” is anticipated: “[m]assive computing power has given
human beings greater power to turn raw matter into useful technologies than
they have ever had.” 4

A material is no longer an obstinate, opaque, natural given, ready to be

formed according to a specific human project. Materials are now coded
structures that are already the product of a generalised scanning and an
immaterial manipulation and production before they even enter the domain
of manufacturing. The total combinatorial space of possible configurations
(including compounds that do not occur naturally, and are even virtual and as-
yet inexistent) is available as a huge memory bank to be searched and probed;
increasingly, the same can be said for the neural space of the brain. Rather
than being the subject who masters the material object, or the destined recip-
ient of its message, the human is the transmitter of automated discoveries,
and in turn is itself treated as a complex of coded, structured matter inter-
facing with other compounds both organic and inorganic.

Closer to the everyday world, consider the recent mass-market emergence

of the electronic cigarette: here the pleasure taken in the inhaling of the
smoke of the burning tobacco plant – a ritualised psychotropic act emerging
no doubt from a contingent encounter in human history – is analysed into its
component parts and simulated through the use of electronic components
and inorganic materials. The meanings with which tobacco products were
freighted are also disrupted through their transfer into this new, simulated
form. The synthetic process splinters the organic meaning of the act of
smoking: the neuroactive agent and its addictive properties are separated
from the evocations of fire, smoke and ash, with a nicotine-laden glycol-water

2 Ian Parker, “The Big Sleep”, New Yorker, December 9, 2013, p. 50–63.
3 See
4 Gerbrand Ceder, Kristin Persson, “The Stuff of Dreams”, Scientific American, December
218 30 Years after Les Immatériaux

vapour offering a tactile and visual analogue for smoke; the potential to
tincture this base with multiple flavours opens it onto the space of the culinary
and olfactory arts, and introduces a disturbing parallel to candy (deplored as
either infantilising for adults or as a danger to children). In the new simulacra
of the aesthetic and – if we might say so – sublime or spiritual aspect of
smoking, with its connotations of nihilism or sacrifice, the fatal consequences
are attenuated (as far as we know), and the habit is welded to a new complex
of associations (the logic of the electronic gadget, that of hardware/software,
and, increasingly, that of “hacking”).

In meshing neurotropics with digital electronics (potentially Internet-con-

nected, keeping in mind that vapestick batteries are charged by plugging them
into the USB ports of PCs), what is really created is a generalised platform for
the delivery of self-administered pharmaceutical compounds – something that
is already being explored by vape “modders”. It would not be stretching things
to imagine, a few years from now, that a wireless vapestick will sample its
owner’s saliva and, detecting imbalances or being programmed for a required
psychotropic state, will immediately synthesise and supply an appropriate
cocktail in vapour form, at the same time recording and consolidating the
data for mass analysis or crowd-based sharing, data which in turn could be
scanned and analysed to develop new products.

Even the time-honoured experience of duration involved in smoking a ciga-

rette disappears, replaced by the temporality of “chainvaping”. The public
health (not to mention tax) implications are unclear, and so far the devices
exist in a kind of legal and statutory limbo. In short, here as elsewhere,
material innovation also constitutes a cultural event that has repercussions
across many different spheres.

As Lyotard surmised, then, “Immaterials” assemble a machine neoculture

whose developments are intractable to the discourses we inherit from
humanism and modern progressivism. With a prescient sense of the danger
that this revolution of materials could easily proceed uncomprehended by
philosophical thought, in staging Les Immatériaux Lyotard set himself up as a
(devil’s) advocate for immaterials:

Prisoners of the materialism of the industrial revolution, immaterial

materials suffer from their invisibility. But it is here that a culture is
fashioned, through images, sounds and words. 5

The few examples I have given – and of course there are many more – show
clearly enough that the question of materials has indeed changed register. As
Lyotard argues, with these developments we can no longer trust our intuitive
categorisation of objects, and their matter can no longer be understood

5 Les Immatériaux catalogue, Album, p. 10.

Immaterials, Exhibition, Acceleration 219

as a given that can be expected to correlate naturally with common-sense

language derived from our historical interactions with the world. New
symbolic machineries, whose rapid and dense operations we can no longer
fathom, shape the synthesis of these new “immaterials” that have become a
part of our lives; they confound natural language, confronting us with expe-
riences we don’t yet have the words to describe, and in which our place as
creator–designer–user is significantly reconfigured by ubiquitous mechanisms
of abstraction:

“Immaterial” materials, albeit not immaterial, are now preponderant in

the flux of exchanges, whether as objects of transformation or invest-
ment, even if only because the passage through the abstract is now
obligatory… [A]ny raw material for synthesis can be constructed by
computer and one can know all of its properties, even if it does not yet
exist or no longer exists.6

According to Lyotard, the classic modern (Cartesian) conception of matter

sought to expel “secondary qualities” from matter-as-pure-extension; their
sensible reception would be only a “theatrical effect” of the body, the body as
a “confused speaker” which “says ‘soft’, ‘warm’, ‘blue’, ‘heavy’”.7 The science of
immaterials instead grasps and manipulates these qualities as the effects of
relative disparities between memory-systems (tellingly, Berkeley’s Materials
Project was formerly known as the Materials Genome Project). In turn, the
human mind becomes only one of a series of “transformers” that fleetingly
generate immaterials as they extract and contract flows of energy-infor-
mation: “even the transformer that our central nervous system is … can only
transcribe and inscribe according to its own rhythm the extractions which
come to it” 8 – we are synthesisers among synthesisers, and not the destination
and arbiter of all matters:

the progress that has been accomplished in the sciences, and perhaps
in the arts as well, is strictly connected to an ever closer knowledge of
what we generally call objects. (Which can also be a question of objects
of thought.) And so analysis decomposes these objects and makes us
perceive that, finally, there can only be considered to be objects at the
level of a human point of view; at their constitution or structural level,
they are only a question of complex agglomerates of tiny packets of
energy, or of particles that can’t possibly be grasped as such. Finally,
there’s no such thing as matter, and the only thing that exists is energy;
we no longer have any such thing as materials, in the old sense of the

6 Ibid.
7 Jean-François Lyotard, “Matter and Time”, in The Inhuman (London: Polity Press, 1991), p.
8 Ibid., p. 43.
220 30 Years after Les Immatériaux

word that implied an object that offered resistance to any kind of project
that attempted to alienate it from its primary finalities.9

For Lyotard the historical moment of immaterials promises a deanthropocen-

tricisation of culture even as it heralds the end of the progressive program of
modernity. Far from being simply emancipatory, however, the predicament
into which it draws us is profoundly ambivalent: “if we have at our disposal
interfaces capable of memorizing, in a fashion accessible to us, vibrations
naturally beyond our ken … then we are extending our power of differentiation
and our memories, we are delaying reactions which are as yet not under con-
trol, we are increasing our material liberty”; and yet this liberty comes at the
price of security, at the price of a counterfinality of technique and a “fore-
closure of ends”.10

What the age of immaterials promises, then, is a complexification of matter

“in which energy comes to be reflected, without humans necessarily getting
any benefit from this”.11 And since immaterialisation, through its generalised
coding and redistribution of material affect, also reconfigures our relation to
the cultural and the aesthetic, it implies “a profound crisis of aesthetics and
therefore of the contemporary arts”.12 As a deliberate exacerbation of this
crisis, Les Immatériaux sought to create a “dramaturgy” of the new condition
of “interactivity”;13 to stage the uncertainty and ambivalence of this disruptive
moment in the history of matter, exploring “the chagrin that surrounds the
end of the modern age as well as the feeling of jubilation that’s connected with
the appearance of something new”. Most importantly, it sought “to activate
this disarray rather than to appease it”,14 by creating an experience that would
allow its audience to explore the “collective cortex constituted by machine
memories”15 (a formulation that no doubt sounded futuristic in 1985 but is
close to being a commonplace today).16

Legitimation, Intensification
It is a question, then, of “legitimation” or “vindication”, of allowing these new
materials their proper place in a culture yet to come, and thus of ushering in
this culture – an operation that simultaneously entails a calling into question

9 Jean-François Lyotard, Interview with Bernard Blistène, Flash Art, March 1985.
10 Lyotard, “Matter and Time”, p. 54.
11 Ibid., p. 45.
12 Ibid., p. 50.
13 “Interactivity” in the ambivalent and disquieting sense that Lyotard gives to it: see his
“report” in the present volume.
14 Lyotard, Interview with Bernard Blistène.
15 Lyotard, “Matter and Time”, p. 45.
16 For example Ray Kurzweil, director of engineering at Google, explicitly describes his
work in terms of the construction of a “synthetic neocortex”: http://www.33rdsquare.
Immaterials, Exhibition, Acceleration 221

of some of the most fundamental principles of modern thought. This

legitimation entails a kind of destabilisation of the human, an admission that
we inhabit a material culture that is no longer “ours”, is no longer straight-
forwardly “human” – or rather, one that gives us to understand that “human”
is no longer a straightforward matter. But how and why did Lyotard come to
employ the medium of the exhibition to make this disquieting truth felt?

The initial brief for the project (drafted before Lyotard was involved) speaks
of a situation in which the passage from an energy-intensive to an infor-
mation-intensive society presents “new modes of perception, representation
and symbolisation, corresponding to new means of decision, conception and
production”.17 The origin and outcome of production processes, product and
raw material, are not straightforwardly distinct any more, and a “profound
modification of the duality design/production” is under way, creating a new
environment that escapes the symbolic order and the means-end con-
figuration of modernity. For new technologies create their own symbolic
order – and a new social order and new modes of distribution along with it.
The authors find this process at an acute stage in which it is not yet fixed, and
where what is most widely shared is a perplexity, which is what they set out
to “dramatise” in the exhibition. Already invoked at this point is the idea of
an experimental scenography and alternative pedagogy, placing a series of
exhibits within the exhibition space according to a conceptual organisation
that would allow for multiple readings.

In taking charge of the conceptualisation of Les Immatériaux, Lyotard proceeds

to trace these questions to their fundamental roots – calling into question the
very notion of “creation” that was present in the initial title (“New Materials
and Creation”) and operating an (all told, rather idiosyncratic) conceptual
dissection of the meaning of “material”. The structure Lyotard devises for the
exhibition suggests that in modernity “the object in general is considered as
a sign”,18 but that the conclusion that therefore all matters are now matters,
materials, of communication, remains unexplored. He adapts a model of
communication taken from Harold Lasswell’s linguistic pragmatism to dis-
tribute the various declinations of the Sanskrit root mât (“to make with the
hand, to measure, to construct”) in accordance with this model of the various
elements involved in any instance of communication. In the first full proposal
for Les Immatériaux the semantic ambiguity of “material” already plays a role in
setting in motion slippages from one semantic zone to another: through shifts
in perspective, one and the same material can be seen to occupy various
different positions within the communicational structure.

17 Les Immatériaux catalogue, Album, p. 8.

18 Ibid., p. 17.
222 30 Years after Les Immatériaux

Lyotard imagines that the dramatisation of this structural slippage (the con-
tent of one message may be the material support for another message and,
from another perspective, the recipient of yet another, etc.), dramatised
within the exhibition space, will produce a kind of disorientation. For “it is not
a matter of explaining”, a brief for the project tells us, “but of making sensible
this problematic … [Les Immatériaux] seeks to awaken a sensibility assumed to
be present in the public, but deprived of the means of expression. It wishes to
make felt the sentiment of the end of an era and of the disquiet that is born in
the dawn of post-modernity”.19 Throughout the development process Lyotard
carefully calibrates Les Immatériaux’s response to this challenge. Rather than
a judgement, it is to be a performative intensification that is as one with the
legitimation of immaterials invoked above: “[i]t is not a matter of making
apocalyptic pronouncements or, on the contrary, of affirming that nothing
has changed; it is a question of intensifying interrogation and, so to speak,
of aggravating the uncertainty that it makes weigh upon the present and the
future of humans.” 20

Before we broach the question of what Lyotard qua philosopher brings to the
new medium of the exhibition – and indeed what the change of medium offers
to the philosopher – we will first trace the history of the site within which this
“dramaturgy of interaction” was to be staged.

The Slaughterhouse and the Piazza

In 1955 the French government resolved to modernise the famous abattoirs
of La Villette on the outskirts of Paris, a late nineteenth-century monument
to rational industrial design and centralisation. 21 Work began in 1961, with the
cost of the project growing from an already enormous 245 million to 110 billion
francs, and with a great deal of these funds ultimately left unaccounted for.
The new abattoirs and auction market proved obsolete before they were com-
pleted. In conceiving of them as a prestigious municipal trophy, the authorities
had ignored the problems of situating a massive centralised facility in an
already congested city, at a time when decentralisation was the predominant
economic and logistical trend. The project proved totally maladapted to the
realities of industry. Work at La Villette was discontinued in 1967 and the
whole edifice was finally demolished, amidst great financial scandal. 22 With the
new slaughterhouse and market dynamited and pulverised, with a great deal
of public money having been squandered in the process, La Villette would lie

19 Ibid., p. 26.
20 Ibid., p. 17.
21 See Dorothée Brantz, “Recalling the Slaughterhouse”, Cabinet, Fall 2001, http://
22 See “Les Autres Scandales”, Le Nouvel Observateur, September 28, 2001: http://tempsreel.
Immaterials, Exhibition, Acceleration 223

dormant for a few years before eventually becoming the site of a “polyvalent
cultural complex”, a “City of Science and Industry”, including a new National
Museum of Science and Technology, the Cité de la Musique, and other cultural
centres: in effect, an early “cultural theme park”.

Georges Pompidou, who along with De Gaulle and Giscard d’Estaing had pre-
sided over this disastrous project, unbowed by scandal and having lubricated
the “settlement” of May ‘68, became president in 1971. 23 The neo-Hausmannian
zeal of this “managerial medici” 24 for remodelling and modernizing the city
continued with the razing of the Les Halles area and the construction of a
massively funded cultural centre – the famous building which (instead of the
ill-fated slaughterhouse) would take on his name.

Perhaps mindful of the fate of the centralised meat market, the Minister of
Culture of the time proclaimed the Centre Beaubourg to be une centrale de
la décentralisation. There is some truth in this, since it is an institution that
had to operate a capital concentration: it needed to figure disproportionately
large upon the national cultural scene because France was losing its political
gravitas in a globalised, decentralised world. The belief that this powerhouse
would reconsolidate some of that power through the cultural realm is indi-
cated frankly enough in the title of the opening exhibition Paris–New York
(original entitled “Paris–New York–Paris”!).

Needless to say, the Beaubourg prefigures many subsequent trophy projects:

in a model to be followed worldwide, it was supposed at once to cement the
importance of culture as a dimension of national patrimony worthy of inter-
national recognition, and to kick-start the “regeneration” of an old area of
Paris into a quartier des arts, a “high-rent location for editorial offices, pub-
lishing houses, architects and boutiques” 25 all clustered around the Piano-
Rogers “cultural warehouse”.

Cultural Space
The appearance of the Beaubourg is also contemporaneous with a certain
set of expectations demanded of public exhibition-making. The appoint-
ment of Pontus Hultén26 was a symbol of the institution’s determination
to at least be seen to be taking seriously the propositions and demands of
the broadened field of contemporary art emerging in the ‘60s within the
inherited institutional framework it sought to reinvigorate and capitalise

23 See Paul Jankowski, Shades of Indignation: Political Scandals in France, Past and Present
(Oxford, NY: Berghahn), p. 88.
24 Ralph Rumney, “Pompidou’s Multi-Coloured Dream-Machine: Or How They Opened the
£125m Art Refinery”, Art Monthly, February, 1977.
25 Nancy Marmer, “Waiting for Gloire”, ArtForum, February 1977.
26 Willis Domingo, “Pontus is Pilot: A Profile of Pontus Hulten”, Art Monthly, February 1977.
224 30 Years after Les Immatériaux

on. In Stockholm, Hultén had proved his ability to attract a non-traditional

audience through a festive programme of controversial happenings and
cross-disciplinary initiatives across the arts, sciences and pop culture. Upon
his appointment at the Beaubourg he spoke enthusiastically of the need to
“create new institutions”:

we are probably moving towards a society where art will play a very large
role… While waiting for art to be integrated with life and penetrate society
in its entirety, exchange (between artists and the public) must take place
in “museums” newly conceived. Such museums will no longer be simply
areas for the conservation of works … but places where artists encounter
the public and where the public itself can become creative… we must try
to open up the museums. 27

In Hultén’s words we find encapsulated the articles of faith of a new con-

ception of art – and thus of the museum and the exhibition – that perhaps
have a different and less hopeful resonance today: the faith that the avant-
garde dream of the unification of art and life is all but achieved, subject to
delivery through natural dynamisms at work in society; the anticipation of an
age in which “a greater part of the population no longer has to struggle every
day for survival” and will thus reclaim artistic creation from the elite; and an
affirmation of the role of the metropolitan arts complex in helping to break
down “cultural attitudes” and in “opening up” – vertically (to new audiences)
and laterally (to non-art disciplines) – the space of culture.

Hultén sees the space of the museum in terms of an urbanist logic: the
museum should be “in the form of a city”, a “system of rooms” that “com-
municate and interpenetrate”, so that the one would have the “chance of
losing oneself and reorienting oneself”. In the framework of this perpetual
mobility, in a building where even the director’s office is circumscribed by
temporary mobile wall panels, 28 and where transparency and porosity extends
from the external architecture to the configuration of the inner space and the
interaction of audiences, Hultén imagines, for example, the viewer of a Braque
collage having the option to press a button to bring down a screen upon
which five more collages are mounted – or not, if she doesn’t want to! Thus
technology is anticipated as a prop for the new museum’s aspiration to dream
in advance the deterritorialised free circulation of a new kind of society.

To what extent did the inscription of this prestigious multi-billion-franc project

within the narrative of an avant-garde unification of art and life succeed? In a
conversation between Hultén and Richard Rogers in 1981, it is impossible not

27 Ibid.
28 Richard Eder, “Beaubourg’s Director Reflects on his Reign”, The New York Times, February
22, 1981:
Immaterials, Exhibition, Acceleration 225

to notice a certain slippage, and a modulation of the original heady ambitions.

Rogers opines:

I think that the Beaubourg has democratised or popularised culture. It

gives all people of all classes and ages something to do on a Saturday
afternoon. You, as a specialist, can go to the museum; your grandmother
can go to the restaurant; and the kids can play in the square. 29

Which Hultén amplifies as follows:

Usually a museum … is just a museum. At the Beaubourg, you have a

whole series of overlapping things to do, and therefore the area becomes
much more active. It’s more like a railway station… It’s the theory of the
flexible magic box, which includes the piazza. Nothing is ever static, and
nothing is ever perfect. 30

In the same year but in less sanguine spirit, interviewed by the New York Times
on his departure from Paris, he says simply:

I wanted – it sounds stupid – to bring art and life together, something like
that. Rauschenberg said it better: the museum of the future is to be in the
little crack between art and life. It sounded very good at the time. 31

The success of the regeneration exercise now appears in a more ambivalent


Society loves it. The artists don’t … The bohemian life that reigned in Paris
until the end of the ‘50s is gone. The artists [then] had more time to think,
to reflect. 32

By this time it was already tempting to read this gigantic culture machine as
a synecdoche for the generalised spaces of dynamic circulation, according to
whose exigencies a new city and a new society were indeed being formed;
spaces that formed a suitable receptacle for the “festive neoconservatism”
denounced by philosopher Gilles Châtelet, in which “cultural production”
is incited to be a facsimile or working scale-model of economic dynamism,
oriented towards an optimisation of the liquidity of all flows 33 – or, as Bau-
drillard has it, in what reads retrospectively like an ironic détournement of

29 “A Flying Start”, interview with Pontus Hulten and Richard Rogers, Images&Issues,
Summer 1981:
IMAGES_ISSUES_PDF.pdf ?1344579035.
30 Ibid.
31 Eder, “Beaubourg’s Director Reflects”.
32 Ibid.
33 See G. Châtelet, To Live and Think Like Pigs: The Incitement of Envy and Boredom in Market
Democracies, trans. R. Mackay (Falmouth and New York: Urbanomic and Sequence Press,
226 30 Years after Les Immatériaux

Les Immatériaux’s proposed slippages between form, content and material


Never has it been so clear [as at the Beaubourg] that the contents – here
culture, elsewhere information or merchandise – are merely the ghostly
support for the opposition of the medium whose function is still that
of beguiling the masses, of producing a homogeneous flow of men and
minds. The huge surges of coming and going are like the crowds of sub-
urban commuters absorbed and disgorged by their places of work at fixed
hours. And of course it is work that is at issue here: the work of testing,
probing, directed questioning. People come here to choose the objectified
response to all the questions they can ask, or rather they themselves come
as an answer to the functional, directed questions posed by the objects. 34

An alignment of the radical extension of the avant-garde project with the

creation of a central–decentralised node of cultural circulation, at once a
prestigious asset in the soft power of the nation-state and a symbol of the
degradation of culture into a bargaining chip, all “while waiting for art to be
integrated with life and penetrate society in its entirety” – to whatever degree
this was a calculated risk, it was certainly a pioneering one, albeit on the part
of a statesman who had more than enough resources at his disposal to stake
on such a venture. As a profile of Hultén in Art Monthly in 1977 admits, “one
can only speculate that the man whose name the new cultural centre bears
was gambling that behind Hulten’s image in the French press as the ebullient
anarchist lies the potentially docile and productive reality of the jeune cadre
dynamique” – that is, that the reassertion of culture as a soft-power asset of
the nation-state would merely set the stage for the real economic game of
installing, in the surrounding remodelled streets (the “hygienic buffer zone”,
according to Baudrillard), the aggressive vanguard of an urbane, “nomadically”
precarious, networked and networking “creative class”. 35

The Project
It is in this context – albeit after the departure of Pontus Hultén and his
replacement by Dominique Bozo – that Les Immatériaux was conceived. Before
Lyotard’s involvement, the project had been brewing since around 1982, under
various titles, as an exhibition to be mounted “on the theme of new materials
and creation” by the Centre de Création Industrielle.

The Centre Pompidou was founded as a collaborative space of different

cultural centres, and, alongside the Modern Art Museum and IRCAM (the

34 Jean Baudrillard, “The Beaubourg Effect: Implosion and Deterrence”, trans. R. Krauss
and A. Michelson, October 20 (Spring 1982), p. 7–8.
35 See Châtelet’s biting satirical portrait of this “young nomad elite” in To Live and Think Like
Immaterials, Exhibition, Acceleration 227

generously-funded electronic music institute ordered directly by Pompidou to

bribe Boulez out of exile) the Centre de Création Industrielle (CCI) was formed
to represent the worlds of design, industry and architecture. The CCI’s early
years were marked predominantly by a failure to integrate happily into this
transdisciplinary family – perhaps owing to the continuing presence of “an
interior uptight with old values” beneath the “fluid commutative exterior”
(Baudrillard again): an exhibition on “The Factory” was viciously publicly
attacked by ministers; one on “Marginal Architecture in the US” was the
subject of controversy because of the inclusion of political texts (by Herbert
Marcuse, Jerry Rubin and Allan Ginsberg); and, most sensitively, a film scripted
by Henri Lefebvre about the problems caused by the “renewal” of the urban
fabric of Paris was banned by Robert Bordaz, Director of the Beaubourg. The
director and assistant director of the CCI departed soon afterwards, with
Bordaz himself temporarily taking over its directorship.

The CCI was finally closed down a few years after Les Immatériaux, so that
the show can be seen at once as its one signal achievement, and, as Anthony
Hudek has suggested, 36 also as a “hinge” in the history of the Pompidou itself;
at once the point at which its ideal cross-disciplinary post-museum status
was effectively achieved, and the last exhibition in which that ideal would be
seriously pursued.

Les Immatériaux certainly took full advantage of the open and indeterminate
space of the fifth floor, and its dazzling range of exhibits taken from industry,
art and commerce lived up to the promise of transdisciplinarity. Yet at the
same time it seemed designed to baffle its audience: the grey metallic meshes
hung from the ceiling blocking any overall perspective, the labyrinthine set
of “zones” impossible to navigate, the (often malfunctioning) audioguide that
switched from one soundtrack to another as the visitor moved through the
space. Far from Hultén’s slick vision of an audiovisual apparatus gliding into
view at the viewer’s command (or not, if she doesn’t want it to), for Lyotard
“interactivity” suggested a disorienting condition in which the visitor was
just one more interface relaying matter-information, subject to lines of force
and flows of energy that could never be satisfactorily integrated, a “rhizome”
of “generalised interactions” through which there was no “preferred path”.
Lyotard speaks of

processes of displacement in which man is but one node of the interface.

The exhibition would be one interface among others … [T]here should be
places where the visitor is no longer an actor … vague terrains, physical
frontiers or sonorous frontiers of fringes of interference. 37

36 Anthony Hudek, “From Over- to Sub-Exposure: The Anamnesis of Les Immatériaux”, Tate
Papers, Autumn 2009,
sub-exposure-anamnesis-les-immateriaux. In this volume, p. 74.
37 Les Immatériaux catalogue, Album, p. 13.
228 30 Years after Les Immatériaux

He explains this approach, at length, in terms of a deliberate violation

against the traditional space-time implied by the gallery. The gallery is “an
establishment of culture – that is to say of acquisition and assimilation of
heterogeneous data – within the unity of an experience which constitutes
a subject”; its spatial set-up is precisely designed in order to facilitate this
synoptic pedagogy. 38 Lyotard seeks with Les Immatériaux to overturn this
“modern-dominant” model of the museum gallery in which the visitor is
reduced to an eye moving through a perspectival perceptual space, in a
formative journey with a certain didactic finality. The development of an
alternative “postmodern” space-time, conceived by Lyotard on the basis of a
strange alignment of Diderot’s Salons with postmodern urbanists, architects
and sociologists, 39 recalls significantly Hultén’s urbanist conception of the
museum. Lyotard describes it more expansively in terms of driving from San
Diego to Santa Barbara, in a zone of “conurbation” where “the opposition
between centre and periphery disappears” and where “one must retune the
radio many times … it is a nebula, where materials are metastable states
of energy. The roads, the sidewalks, have no façade. Information circulates
through irradiation and invisible interfaces”.40 This conceptualisation of
the show was even extended to the catalogue, whose Album lays bare the
processes of development of the concept, while the Inventaire gives the reader
a set of loose-leaf representations of the “sites” within the show, which can be
reconfigured and reordered at will.

Les Immatériaux was no world’s-fair-type extravaganza, then. What is

noticeable in the first full brief of the project following Lyotard’s involve-
ment, and even more so in the exhibition itself, is the way in which he injects
the excitement engendered by cutting-edge developments with a note of
chagrin – anxiety, sorrow or disappointment – from the hegemonic misdeeds
of the modern project across the world wars and the holocaust – central
subjects of his writings at the time. The exhibition opens not with flashing
computer screens but with the desolation of the body in five Beckettesque
scenarios, and with Joseph Losey’s sombre film Monsieur Klein. Thus, if Les
Immatériaux seemed in certain senses to satisfy the Pompidousian agenda,
it also introduced an abrasive approach to both content and form that was
apparently at odds with it. Indeed, these contradictions and ambivalences are
clear in the very conception of a project that adopts a proto-cybernetic theory
of communication as the armature for an experience that renders “clear” com-
munication impossible. But at the same time, one also wonders whether its
conceptual interrogation was shielded from the political and economic context
within which it was produced.

38 Ibid., see also Lyotard, ”After Six Months of Work…”, in this volume.
39 Les Immatériaux catalogue, Album, p. 19.
40 Ibid.
Immaterials, Exhibition, Acceleration 229

At least one member of the CCI team admits to a concern that these latter
aspects were missing from the show’s “materials”. A press conference text for
Les Immatériaux declares: “Insecurity, loss of identity, crisis, are not expressed
only in the economy and the social, but also in the domains of sensibility,
of knowledge and of the powers of man … and modes of life”.41 In a con-
temporaneous interview with the CCI team, during a discussion of the “global”
point of view adopted by the exhibition, and the risk that it may be perceived
as a “reactionary … apology for technology”, Chantal Noël suggests that Les
Immatériaux should be seen as a “preliminary enquiry” leading to further
interrogations. Sabine Vigoureux replies: “One might all the same ask why,
from this preliminary enquiry, all economic and social analysis is excluded.
As if thought in its pure state were independent of these factors, when in fact
they also have an influence on thought. Personally, I saw this as a deficiency,
at the outset”; to which Nicole Toutcheff replies that these factors are indeed
present, but simply not systematically presented as such, and that the overall
conception of the show obviates such concerns, since “an interesting aspect
of this kind of philosophical discourse is that it does not try to organise these
scattered elements into a system”.42

Certainly none of the team – least of all Lyotard – could have been unaware of
the problematic context outlined above (Lyotard mentions ambivalently the
question of the Beaubourg’s “centrality” in his report during the last stages
of planning). 43 Baudrillard had issued his brilliant, withering analysis of the
“carcass of flux and signs” in 1981.44 But if we place it side-by-side with Bau-
drillard’s ferocious satire, we can perhaps see Lyotard as striving to counter-
instrumentalise the space he had been offered: “if you had to have something
in Beaubourg – it should have been a labyrinth”, says Baudrillard;45 Lyotard
uses the reconfigurable space to build a darkened labyrinth on the fifth floor –
or something even less ordered than a labyrinth (for, as Lyotard notes, even a
labyrinth usually has one thread and restricts movement to particular paths). 46
“And they stampede to it… because, for the first time, they have a chance to
participate, en masse, in this immense work of mourning for a culture they
have always detested… The masses charge at Beaubourg as they do to the
scenes of catastrophes, and with the same irresistible impulse”, says Bau-
drillard;47 Lyotard tries to create an experience that heightens unease and
disquiet and confirms the demise of modern culture. “The only content of

41 Les Immatériaux catalogue, Album, p. 26.

42 “La Règle du Jeu: Matérialiser les Immatériaux”, interview with the CCI team, in E. Thé-
ofilakis (ed.), Modernes, et Après? “Les Immatériaux” (Paris: Autrement, 1985).
43 See Lyotard, “After Six Months of Work…”, in this volume, p.59.
44 Baudrillard nevertheless cooperated with the Centre Pompidou (notably on the journal
Traverses) for many years both before and after the publication of L’effet Beaubourg.
45 Baudrillard, “The Beaubourg Effect”, p. 6.
46 See Lyotard, “After Six Months of Work …”, in this volume, p. 62.
47 Baudrillard, “The Beaubourg Effect”, p. 8.
230 30 Years after Les Immatériaux

Beaubourg is the masses themselves, whom the building treats like a con-
verter, like a black box, or, in terms of input-output, just like a refinery handles
petroleum products or a flood of unprocessed material”, says Baudrillard;
Lyotard invites the masses to experience themselves as material “trans-
formers” alongside the immaterials they have come to explore, and looks into
installing electronic systems to involve visitors interactively by monitoring and
gathering data on their visits.

Les Immatériaux is undoubtedly more than just a symptom. As Lyotard

recounts at length in his report, 48 inside the project an acute struggle is taking
place with the conditions under which it was possible to make the exhibition
happen. Yet Les Immatériaux perhaps paid too little attention to the way in
which its elaborate sabotage of the space and conception of the modern
gallery risked being undermined by the problems of a postmodern space that
was designed precisely to supersede that classical-modern framework. When
Chaput reflects on this institutional problem, he seems to understand the
latter as simply an extension of the former:

I don’t think that there is any contradiction in the sole fact that
philosophical discourses change medium. The problems start when one
wishes to make it the object of mass consumption. Doing philosophy in
the framework of a public service (which Beaubourg is) is no straightfor-
ward matter. The whole “communication”, “mass”, “democracy”, “public
service” aspect has not been an easy fit with the innovative principles
of the exhibition… The “exhibition” medium, the Pompidou Centre, are
tools conceived as vehicles for a unique meaning and devices to share it
through successive capillaries as far as possible. Here, we do the opposite:
one product with multiple meanings, confided to the sensibility of
individuals. This is rigorously the inverse of traditional communication.49

This predicament is reflected in the sometimes baffled and ambivalent

responses to Les Immatériaux. A contemporary review by Kate Linker in Art-
Forum, 50 while convinced by the show’s conceit, judges that its execution
“banalised its central themes”, with “too much mechanical hokum – too many
light machines and holograms, too many buttons to push and atomisers to
squeeze”, with “technology occupy[ing] center stage”, “inevitably valorised,
and thereby mystified”. But if this “change of medium” for philosophy looks,
ironically, “better on paper”, she admits that its failure “raises the question of
whether profound shifts of a philosophical nature can be represented through

48 Ibid.
49 “La Règle du Jeu”, p. 16.
50 Kate Linker, “A Reflection on Post-Modernism”, ArtForum, September 1985.
Immaterials, Exhibition, Acceleration 231

It is doubtless Les Immatériaux’s simultaneous success and failure – its con-

tradictory status as both an expensive, technically-demanding, trailblazing
postmodern technological extravaganza and a sombre subversion of com-
munication – that makes it interesting for us today. This ambivalence, as Linker
indicates, is owed at least in part to the difficulties involved in transfusing
philosophy into the medium of the exhibition. How, then, did Lyotard envision
this transfer, and what motivated him to attempt it?

A Medium of Resistance?
Chantal Noël, one of the team from the CCI who worked on Les Immatériaux,
speaks of “philosophy changing its media. It comes down to inscribing this
exigency in another space and with other means than those of the book”.
“Through the ‘exhibition’ medium”, she continues, “the cultural institution
becomes a site where certain reflections of a philosophical order can be
grasped.” 51 We might agree, but at the same time we need to acknowledge
that this proposition already gives rise to another set of questions: What is the
exigency of philosophy? Simply to create a state of wonder, or questioning? To
craft and communicate new concepts? To offer a glimpse of the resolution of
social or political problems? To shape intuitions or symbols that schematise
concepts? And what is the function of a “cultural institution” in relation to such

Moreover, what made this question of a “change of medium” appealing for

Jean-François Lyotard at the time of Les Immatériaux? It seems that he found
himself under pressure from two related movements: Firstly, at a distance
of a decade and a half from ‘68’s transdisciplinary delirium, he observed the
one-way drift of institutional philosophy back into a closed circle of scholars,
and an embattled one at that. At the time of Les Immatériaux, philosophical
activity in its traditional (university) setting was beginning to be challenged
by the edicts of neoliberal “pragmatism”, “communication”, and “efficiency”
(a process whose nadir seems to be in sight today). Outside the academy,
meanwhile, a new breed of professional public intellectuals – the nouveaux
philosophes – had emerged to proudly sweep under the carpet all of the con-
ceptually violent, antihumanist enquiries of poststructuralist thought, railing
against its abrasive experimentalism, its uselessness for immediate practical
politics, and its nihilism, and seeking to reestablish thinking upon solid ground
with the human as a fixed point from which to assert, as Lyotard writes in
The Inhuman, “the authority to suspend, forbid interrogation, suspicion, the
thinking that gnaws away at everything”. 52 Yet at the same time, within the
most disparate of nonphilosophical spheres – biology, design, art and science,

51 “La Règle du Jeu”, p. 16.

52 Jean-François Lyotard, “Introduction: About the Human”, in The Inhuman, p. 1.
232 30 Years after Les Immatériaux

and everyday life itself, straining under the torque of technical developments
whose vocation had never been to “make sense” and whose deliverances
scramble the finalities of humanism and modernist optimism – philosophical
questions presented themselves not just as unavoidable, but in the form of a
generalised intense experience of disorientation.

The enlightenment institutions within which philosophy could traditionally

claim a rightful place are in decline, then, and yet a tacit appeal for philosophy
comes from every quarter. This, Lyotard says, is what gives rise to a
philosopher’s need to go outside the university; he states this explicitly as
one of the reasons for his involvement in Les Immatériaux: “A philosopher like
me is more inclined to think his interests lie in becoming involved in what
happens outside institutions; that he needs to get out of the university. Hence
my presence in the team planning Les Immatériaux… Beyond institutionalised
philosophy, there is a philosophy yet to come, one which corresponds to the
abolition of ‘disciplinary’ boundaries.”. 53

Refusing the clear and efficient communication commanded by the nouveaux

philosophes, Les Immatériaux would precisely not address its audience in any
illusorily straightforward way. In its dramatisation of philosophy, it set out to
resist the consensual stifling of the fundamental inquietude that constitutes
the being of the human, and would even aim to amplify the intensification of
this inquietude in an increasingly technicised environment.

It is worth noting here that this two-way resistance is no less pertinent today,
when there is little diffusion of academic philosophy outside the university
walls, and when, if “philosophy” ever does appear in a popular setting, it is
still more or less in the “communicative” form outlined above, or even worse:
philosophy as an alternative form of entertainment, distraction, therapy,
self-help, as a diversionary enrichment of one’s life, and so on. Moreover, any
attempt today to bring philosophy into the public sphere in the more inde-
terminate, challenging way that Lyotard prescribes will find itself in direct
competition with a more formidable claimant: increasingly, over the past 40
years, contemporary art has established itself as the primary cultural site
where a public thinking recognisable as philosophical takes place. This new
agora is all the more formidable a competitor in that, within it, participation
in contemporary thinking is said to take place not through a laborious study
and working-through of concepts, but through collective and individual expe-
riences and happenings. Precisely the kind of “dramaturgy” of ideas that
Lyotard pioneered in Les Immatériaux has in effect become endemic. Thus,
as we look back on Les Immatériaux 30 years later, we can see it as one of the
first events in which philosophy and the art of the exhibition were brought

53 Jean-François Lyotard, Élie Théofilakis, “Les Petits Récits de Chrysalide” (interview), in

Théofilakis (ed.), Modernes, et Après?, p. 5–6.
Immaterials, Exhibition, Acceleration 233

together in such a way – with all the ambivalence entailed by that pioneering

Les Immatériaux sought to make good the deficiencies of philosophy in

its public role by reasserting philosophy’s vocation: that of exacerbating
inquietude rather than issuing reassuring communications based on an
assumed common ground. And yet it was of course conceived as a project
that would gain a large audience. It at once embodied and challenged the
emerging model of the exhibition as a public spectacle – a model which, one
might argue, merely feeds into the communicative frenzy of accelerated
development. In this sense, too, Les Immatériaux can be understood as a
kind of hinge point: it seems to be poised on a knife-edge between satisfying
the Beaubourg cultural megamachine’s call for polyvalent cultural com-
munication, on the one hand, and entirely sabotaging these demands with
disorientation, indetermination, and greyness (“philosophy paints its grey on
grey!”) on the other. As we shall see, the roots of this ambivalence must be
sought within Lyotard’s philosophical work of the time.

Inquietude and The Accelerationist Error

At the same time as Lyotard is tempted to undertake Les Immatériaux’s
experiment of pursuing philosophy “in another medium”, his writings attest
to a renewed commitment to philosophy “itself”. It is as if, during this period
– at least in the texts collected in The Inhuman (which, as Lyotard reminds
us, were largely delivered to nonprofessional audiences) – the philosopher
was undergoing one of those upheavals in which technical labour, and the
unfolding and elaboration of a programme of investigation, gives way once
again to philosophizing as such: indeterminate, ambiguous, puzzling and
open. (As he writes in The Differend, a “weariness with regard to ‘theory’”
means that “[t]he time has come to philosophize.” 54) All of this makes these
writings valuable for those of us who – naively, and counter to profes-
sionalisation, archivisation and exegesis – wish to take philosophy outside
of the academic cloisters and do philosophy not “by the book” but “from the
heart”. Perhaps we might legitimate such naivety by appealing to tradition and
saying that this heart is Augustinian: Inquietus est cor nostrum, says Augustine:
our heart – for Augustine, that of postlapsarian man – is unquiet, it can find no
rest; its inquiry into itself – the question I have become for myself – is not one of
patient, systematic exegesis, but something more like a continuous unease, or
even panic. This inquietude is a keyword that appears continually in Lyotard’s
vision for Les Immatériaux.

54 Jean-François Lyotard, The Differend: Phrases in Dispute (Minneapolis: University of

Minnesota Press, 1988), trans. Georges Van Den Abbeele, p. xiii.
234 30 Years after Les Immatériaux

Augustinian inquietude is reprised by Pascal in the anthropology at the heart

of his fragmentary, agitated, exemplarily modern corpus: an anthropology
abbreviated in the Pensées’ terse formula: “Condition of man: incon-
stancy, boredom, inquietude.” 55 In Pascal as in Augustine, the attribution of
inquietude to man as a primordial condition is not understood merely as
descriptive, but as a normative and even programmatic demand: not only is
inquietude an inevitable aspect of human existence no matter how much we
may try to suppress it; it is to be acknowledged, exacerbated and intensified
– and this is the philosopher’s task. The philosopher’s job is to stir up trouble
in himself and his fellow humans, to expose the constitutive inquietude at the
heart of the human, which modern civilisation intensifies while supplying us
with endless distractions with which to repress and ignore it.

Nowhere is this inquietude stronger in Lyotard than in his departure from

Marxism. In his emotionally charged 1982 memoir of Pierre Souryi, 56 Lyotard
expresses exquisitely the pain of his inability in all conscience to accede to the
certainties required in order to commit himself to “the struggle”: his doubts
as to the inability of orthodox Marxism to describe the contemporary world;
his suspicion of the dialectic as a universal language (language-game); and
his conviction that capitalism has entered into an unprecedented phase, in
which the supposed certainties of its so-called “organic development” are
subverted. It is at this point in Lyotard’s work that we arrive at the question of
“accelerationism”. 57

The circulation of Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams’s 2013 “Manifesto for an
Accelerationist Politics” 58 has led to a reconstruction and reappraisal of what
Benjamin Noys has retrospectively dubbed the “accelerationist” period in
French theory, a period which begins precisely with Lyotard’s (and Deleuze
and Guattari’s) break with Marxist orthodoxy:59

Galvanised by the events of May ‘68 and driven to a wholesale rejection

of the stagnant cataracts of orthodox party politics, in his text of 1972
Energumen Capitalism and 1974’s Libidinal Economy Lyotard suggests that
emancipation of desire be sought not through the dialectic, not through
the party, but by way of the polymorphous perversion set free by the cap-
italist machine itself. Errant forces are at work in the signs of capital itself,
he says. The indifference of the value-form, the machinic composition of

55 On inquietude in Pascal, see Alexandre Declos, “L’Inquiétude dans les Pensées de

Pascal”, Revue de Métaphysique et de Morale 78 (2013), p. 167–184.
56 Jean-François Lyotard, “A Memorial of Marxism”, in Peregrinations: Law, Form, Event (New
York: Columbia University Press, 1988), p. 45–75.
57 On accelerationism, see R. Mackay and A. Avanessian (eds) #Accelerate: The Accel-
erationist Reader (Falmouth and Berlin: Urbanomic and Merve, 2014).
58 Ibid.
59 B. Noys, The Persistence of the Negative (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2010), p.
Immaterials, Exhibition, Acceleration 235

labour, and their merciless reformatting of all previous social relations

is seen as the engine for the creation of a new fluid social body. It is the
immanence with universal schizophrenia toward which capital draws
social relations that promises emancipation here, rather than the party
politics that, no doubt, paled by comparison with the oneiric escapades
of ‘68. The credo of accelerationism is most explicitly formulated by Gilles
Lipovetsky in his reading of Lyotard: “‘[R]evolutionary actions’ are not
those which aim to overthrow the system of Capital, which has never
ceased to be revolutionary, but those which complete its rhythm in all its
radicality, that is to say actions which accelerate the metamorphic process
of bodies.” 60

Accelerationism in its contemporary form, on the other hand, while drawing

heavily upon this moment, introduces some different nuances; it is said to
consist in

[t]he assertion that the crimes, contradictions and absurdities of cap-

italism have to be countered with a politically and theoretically progres-
sive attitude towards its constituent elements. Accelerationism seeks to
side with the emancipatory dynamic that broke the chains of feudalism
and ushered in the constantly ramifying range of practical possibilities
characteristic of modernity… [T]the focus of much accelerationist thinking
is the examination of the supposedly intrinsic link between these trans-
formative forces and the axiomatics of exchange value and capital accu-
mulation that format contemporary planetary society. According to accel-
erationism, then, the transformations wrought on the planet and on the
human by globalised technology, the corrosion of tradition and heredity,
the artificialisation of experience and the inextricably global reformatting
of the social are not deplorable ills, they are not only inevitable but
present an opportunity to extend the ongoing adventure of the human
project. And crucially, the claim is that to think this is not merely to acqui-
esce to capitalism but to speculate beyond it: that acceleration can be an
emancipatory vector of enlightenment.61

Before turning to this contemporary accelerationism, let us ask whether it

is possible that Les Immatériaux was also a part of Lyotard’s reckoning with
the “accelerationist” moment in his work. In several of his works from the
‘80s, Lyotard speaks of that period as a lapsus. First of all in Peregrinations –
where he talks about Libidinal Economy as his “evil book, the book everyone
is tempted to write”.62 And secondly, and more indirectly, in the introduction
to The Inhuman, where he seems to deplore the impulse behind this work and

60 Mackay and Avanessian, “Introduction” to #Accelerate, p. 11–12.

61 Ibid., p. 4.
62 Jean-François Lyotard, Peregrinations: Law, Form, Event (New York: Columbia University
Press, 1988), p. 13.
236 30 Years after Les Immatériaux

to regret the mistakes he made in the wake of his departure from the party
line. Lyotard’s key point here – one echoed by many critics of contemporary
accelerationism – is that the accelerationist error consists in a failure to draw a
distinction between two types of the inhuman:

The inhumanity of the system which is currently being consolidated under

the name of development … must not be confused with the infinitely
secret one of which the soul is hostage. To believe, as happened to
me, that the first can take over from the second, give it expression, is a

The fatal mistake of accelerationism was to believe that, on the horizon

of the deterritorialisation opened up by capital, there would be disclosed
an originary desire that could flow free of instituted structures of power.
Now, however, Lyotard takes a more sober view of the dangers involved
in capitulating to “the imperative to introducing ever more mediations,
of breaking down and modulating everything to assure more control and
more capacity and a ‘richer’ set of possible modifications” – a generalised
differentiation of which “new technologies and the media are aspects”, a
process which “is reproduced by accelerating and extending itself according
to its internal dynamic alone … assimilat[ing] risks, memoris[ing] their
informational value and us[ing] this as a new mediation necessary to its
functioning”.64 What he once saw as the revolutionary “metamorphic”
potential of capitalist deterritorialisation, he now sees as a process that, in
its inexhaustibility, “takes away the hope of an alternative”.65 What is more,
just as development does not entail emancipation, so the inhumanity of
the system does not preclude a banal humanism. The rise of the nouveaux
philosophes has proved that there is in fact no incompatibility between the
alienations of capital and the reinscription of an all-too-human mask from
which spout communicative homilies that act as a suitable emollient for

Given that the above description of “development” cited above is not dissim-
ilar to Lyotard’s definition of the “immaterial condition”, let’s hypothesise that
the two are not unconnected, and that, in Les Immatériaux as in The Inhuman,
Lyotard is seeking a third option – neither socialism nor barbarism – and in
doing so, seeking to atone for his error. In Les Immatériaux, he continues to
interrogate the technosocial reformatting of the human through inhuman
material memory. He certainly does not erect any moral objection to it – in
fact, as we have seen, he constructs the notion of immaterials precisely so
as to let them speak, to legitimate them as an object of philosophical dis-
course, breaking them out of the modern paradigm and allowing them to be

63 Lyotard, “About the Human”, The Inhuman, p. 2.

64 Ibid., p. 7.
65 Ibid., p. 6.
Immaterials, Exhibition, Acceleration 237

expressed according to their proper nature. As we have suggested, this also

involves a “legitimation” of the inquietude they provoke. And, finally, it is this
inquietude that gives rise to the immanent demand for a non-institutional
philosophy conducted by other means. But what relation do these exigencies
have to Lyotard’s retreat from his accelerationist stance?

The attempt to legitimate immaterials without returning to his irresponsible

accelerationist stance generally gives rise to an advocacy of slowness. “To go
fast is to forget fast”, under the imperative “Be operational or disappear”,66
whereas “writing and reading which advance backwards in the direction of
the unknown thing ‘within’ are slow”.67 Lyotard here seems to rediscover the
theme of anamnesis as the “other of acceleration”.68 He recovers this clas-
sical philosophical term – the remembering of what was already within, the
immemorial non-self in the self, glazed over by doxa and by everyday habit
– as the name for a recovery of the “other” inhuman; a recovery that takes
place through an advocacy of immaterials that is not, however, a submission to
the vista of sheer acceleration they open up. The age of immaterials and the
demands it makes upon thought open a deep chasm within the human which
must be carefully distinguished from the promise of cheap accelerationist
thrills – the jouissance of which, precisely, would collude with “communication”
and “development”.

Lyotard links the immaterial closely to the immature;69 and the anamnesic
inhuman is the province not of the urban sophisticate but of the child. For
Lyotard, “the child is eminently the human because its distress heralds
and promises things possible” – that is, it attests to what is not yet securely
bound within the horizon of the human, and demands and makes evident
the incompletion of the labour of becoming human. Humanism conceived as
already achieved and complete (the smugly-assumed majority of the nouveaux
philosophes) is but a façade of maturity, a feigning of adulthood whose stance
is entirely compatible, ideologically speaking, with the merciless acceleration
of capital. But presumably accelerationism goes in the opposite, equally
undesirable direction, losing sight of the inquietude of the child as it gazes rapt
at the imagined spectacle of a deterritorialised future.

As Pascal tells us, we may create endless “diversions” in order to forget our
inquietude and the vacuity it alerts us to – and yet all this will achieve is to
deepen it. In Lyotard’s words: “the system has the consequence of causing
the forgetting of what escapes it. But the anguish is that of a mind haunted
by a familiar yet unknown guest which is agitating it, sending it delirious but
also making it think – if one claims to exclude it, if one doesn’t give it an outlet,

66 Ibid., p. 2.
67 Ibid., p. 2–3.
68 Ibid., p. 3.
69 See Lyotard, “After Six Months of Work…”, in this volume, p. 34.
238 30 Years after Les Immatériaux

one aggravates it.” 70 Inquietude therefore needs to be recognised, awakened

and intensified, an inquietude which – according to Pascal – stems from
our vacuity, from the fact that we do not know what we are. And, as Chaput

The proposition of Les Immatériaux is … to make felt, to show, troubled-

ness, inquietude and madness.71

Lyotard’s accelerationism was really about the acknowledgement of the end

of the human project understood as a project of will, as the collective project
of enlightenment. Through technics, through the hegemony of the exchange-
form of value, through the automation and autonomisation of the machine
of development, human projection into the future had been usurped by the
autonomic will of capital, a blind and infinite will-to-will, a purposiveness
whose only purpose is to produce more, to extract more, to mediate more –
what Lyotard now calls “development”. Clearly, the accelerationist error had
been to place faith in the emancipatory dynamic of this autonomic process.

Lyotards immaterialism, however, still corresponds to the renunciation of

the modern Cartesian vision of authorial projection, the free imposition of
a project conceived by the will upon a matter which is an indifferent patient
for the human agent. But it combines this renunciation with a recusal of the
accelerationist faith in capital’s futurity. It is in something like a state of shock
(to use Bernard Stiegler’s expression) that, while defiantly resisting any nos-
talgic reaction against the disquieting technical edifice of immaterials, Lyotard
seeks to undertake a “deeper reflection” that would discover their more
fundamental significance by way of anamnesis or the “other inhuman”.

It is difficult, however, not to see this contemplation without project as being,

also, a retreat. The risk is that it consigns philosophical thinking to an even
more confining sequestration, and that, moreover, it attests to a continuing
faith in an underlying reality of the (in)human, or of thought, that can be
extracted, recovered, and provide succour – even if this recovery is infinitely
deferred. At the same time as he wants to reflect that immaterials are trans-
forming the human, Lyotard also wishes to move this reflection to a reg-
ister that will effectively be a prophylactic against machinic contamination,
since it indicates that thought can maintain a reflective distance. And it is
the exhibition that then comes to stand for this free space in which we can
distance ourselves from the accelerative process and return to a thought
that “doesn’t have its place and time on the support of inscriptions” and that
“remains unknown to the breachings and scannings”.72

70 Lyotard, “About the Human”, p. 2.

71 Thierry Chaput, voiceover in the short film Octave dans le pays des immatériaux (dir. Paule
Zajdermann, 1985).
72 Jean-François Lyotard, “Logos and Techne, or Telegraphy”, in The Inhuman, p. 55.
Immaterials, Exhibition, Acceleration 239

The intention here, after all, seems to be to reinscribe the machine within a
technical space that is lacking in being – which suggests that Les Immatériaux
stakes everything on a test which, on the basis of affective response, would
reinscribe the border between man and replicant.73 Although this “recovery”
will never be complete, the experience of inquietude furnished by the drama
of the exhibition in effect becomes proof of the human’s resistance to
absorption into the accelerative dynamic.

Exhibition and/or Laboratory

In general, cultural investment in the exhibition as a site for thinking has only
intensified since Les Immatériaux. Many contemporary art projects, often with
the imprimatur of a philosopher, and often mixing “non-art” objects with
artworks, promote the idea of a community of inquietude and indeterminacy
that exists fleetingly, fugitively, in the hidden corners of “the system of devel-
opment”, in places of contemplation or collective fabulation, thus reconfirming
that some immemorial site remains for a thinking outside of it: this, it seems
to me, is precisely the hope of the contemporary form of public exhibition,
and of the world of contemporary art in general.

The aggressive drive to exacerbate inquietude present in Les Immatériaux,

however, seems to have given way to more anodyne forms. Wary of asserting
any purpose or project, retreating from the technosocial realm, cowed by
the dread that technology = rationality = mastery, many of these cultural
reflections are prey to a certain institutional calcification of the dogmas
of indeterminacy and sublimity. Their articles of faith are the community
of that which cannot communicate its community; the value of open, free,
nondetermined play, receptiveness, and indefinition; and the insistence that
we must build spaces in which not to conceptualise, explicate, project, plan,
assert, or produce. In the guise of sombre reflection, this distances both art
and philosophy from the forces and knowledges that shape the world. More-
over, when non-art objects are brought into the exhibition space, they are
precisely severed from these complex productive forces and rendered over
to a system of circulation that wrongly supposes itself capable of distancing
itself from them. Why does an artist take disquieting, vexing, puzzling objects
from the world of contemporary capitalism and place them inside this other
environment? Because these materials are what construct our technosocial
situation. With what purpose? The artist refuses to tell you, because his
value as artist is precisely to tear these objects away from their functional
integration into “the system of development” and to present them in a space
of indeterminacy, to enable us to reflect upon them in a deeper manner. To

73 On Lyotard’s post-accelerationist project as an extended Bladerunner-style “voight-

kampff test” see I. H. Grant, “LA 2019: Demopathy and Xenogenesis”, in Mackay and
Avanessian (eds), #Accelerate, p. 275–301.
240 30 Years after Les Immatériaux

what effect? To aim at effects would be precisely to cede to the system – the
artist does not do this, because he is well aware that the modern idea of will is
compromised by the evils of capital, that accelerated development makes of
any human “project” an absurdity.

What is disturbing now, in short, is that the presentation of inquietude has

become indistinguishable from a certain quietism, and that “the gallery” has
once again become the “establishment of a culture”, albeit a distinctively
(post-)postmodern one. Perhaps the type of project anticipated by Les
Immatériaux is now fully integrated into the consensual politics proposed by
the nouveaux philosophes and by neoliberalism, as a sanctioned form of com-
munication. It has found its proper place, as a passive contemplation without
project, which, at most, nurtures the forlorn hope of preserving thinking
intact within a sequestered space. The edifying function of inquietude is fully
integrated into the circulatory system of the culture and communications
industry that Lyotard had hoped his sombre grey labyrinth would delay or
obstruct. All of this means that we must look at Les Immatériaux not in a nos-
talgically indulgent mode, but from the point of view of a contemporary situ-
ation which it anticipates and which it played a part in creating, at the same
time as it set out to resist it.

Today’s exhibitions, with catalogues full of philosophers’ essays, and whose

eclectic exhibits sagely reflect on various “materials”, “objects” and “things”,
provoke some ambivalence as to “which inhuman” they serve: the troubling
reflection that erodes self-certainty and exposes us to immanent crisis, or
the accelerating circulation of messages quite capable of comforting and
reassuring us as they lubricate development and the extraction of surplus
value; the child who speaks in an alien tongue, or the infantilised adult of
consumer capital, a relay for platitudes of cultural literacy and self-satis-
fied “contemplation”? Just as Lyotard returned to his earlier “mistake”, the
dialectic within Les Immatériaux between acceleration and anamnesis should
be critically revisited in order to assess the context in which its producers
sought to stage this struggle through a dramatisation within the space of the

It is easy to pledge allegiance to our inquietude, to acknowledge the inde-

terminate nature of what it is to be human, without assuming the collective
responsibility to once more determine what we will make of ourselves. This
latter question is the one that contemporary accelerationism sets out to ask,74
insisting that the impossibility of fixing our place in relation to matter in terms
of an inherited concept of mastery does not have as its necessary consequence
that we must resign ourselves to merely contemplating our possible fate from

74 See Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams, “#Accelerate: Manifesto for an Accelerationist Pol-
itics”, in Mackay and Avanessian (eds), #Accelerate, p. 347–361.
Immaterials, Exhibition, Acceleration 241

within a sheltered space. In its renewed optimism and advocacy of enlight-

enment, it reminds us that we have modes of thinking at our disposal that go
beyond Cartesianism mechanism and Laplacean determinism, and argues
that we have the means to orient ourselves speculatively within these new
spaces and to positively take hold of inquietude.75 Whether or not one finds
convincing the broad sketches set out so far by contemporary accelerationism,
I would argue that its basic impulse poses an appropriate challenge that today
invites us to reach beyond the stakes of Les Immatériaux: that of decoupling
the experimental exploration of the unknown spaces that immaterials open
up from the profit axiomatic, and of doing so beyond spaces of contemplation
and indeterminacy that present the fleeting illusion of shelter or dazzle us
with the sublime aestheticised spectacle of our own disorientation, within the
context of a culture industry whose productions are safely sequestered from
that of which they speak.

According to Srnicek and Williams,76 accelerationism is a matter of remaining

true to both inquietude and the avant-garde will to become inhuman, but also
of imagining ways to collectively undertake the reformatting of the socius,
to reorient the hegemony of sociotechnics, the extension of the “collective
cortex constituted by machine memories”.77 For isn’t the time for melancholy
and mourning – the “first state of shock”, in Bernard Stiegler’s words – now
over? Don’t we need to go beyond stupefaction, and doesn’t Les Immatériaux
ultimately still fall too much on the side of chagrin rather than jubilation? To
go further calls for a transformative anthropology rather than an apologetic
anthropology, and a constructive rather than a reflective immaterialism. It
calls for the involvement of philosophical thought across disciplines, certainly,
but in the register of design and production rather than exhibition and
reflection. The greatest problem of politics and of desire is the mismeasure
between possibility and reality to which technocapitalism constrains us. The
experiment is already being conducted upon us, but how do we break into the
laboratory? How do we mobilise that which is awakened by the inquietude of
the immaterial age yet which resists the system of development (the “other”
inhuman) in the direction of the construction of an immaterial future? This is
a task that arguably no longer belongs within the register of reflection or of
exhibition, even the surexposition that Les Immatériaux intended to operate.
For ultimately, if we are to take on the philosophical and political stakes that
Lyotard wished to bring to light in Les Immatériaux, perhaps the exhibition is
no longer the appropriate site for such a process.

75 As many contemporary accelerationists argue, science fiction should be an inspiration

here, as it turns fear and inquietude into excitement at unknown possibilities – let’s not
forget that Lyotard himself says the goal is “to move from melancholia to novatio, from
chagrin to jubilation”.
76 Ibid.
77 Lyotard, “Matter and Time”, p. 45.
242 30 Years after Les Immatériaux

Despite the feverish hybridizing of contemporary philosophy and con-

temporary art, today we rarely see anything as acutely expressive as was
Les Immatériaux of the tension between the demands of neoliberal cultural
institutions and the will to use the exhibition as a medium for thinking. Rarely
do the two sit together in quite such open discomfort. At a time when we risk
creating a closed-circuit between theoretical production and contemporary
art, Lyotard’s heartfelt wish to use the “new support” of the exhibition for
philosophical thought in order to “dramatise ideas”, to reach an audience
beyond both academic philosophy and the art-museum audience, and to
do so by disquieting them, remains inspiring; yet its implicit critique of the
“modern gallery” needs to be extended into a consideration of the machine of
cultural circulation that is the contemporary exhibition; the conventions and
limitations of this institution of culture also need to be challenged, in order to
move toward a constructive immaterialism. As Lyotard says:

There is a gap between what is proposed to us for our little everyday lives,
and the enormous capacities of experimentation and their ramifications
in the social, opened up by technoscience. People are very aware of this.
Leading a dog’s life when one is at large in the cosmos, etc. … A laboratory
humanity, that is to say an experimental humanity, this would be the best
outcome of the crisis.78

78 Ibid., p. 11, and 13.

From Immaterials to
Resistance: The Other
Side of Les Immatériaux

Daniel Birnbaum and Sven-Olov Wallenstein

Les Immatériaux has often been seen as a celebration of information

technology and a new postmodern world based on the immateriality of
flows of information. The proposal here is that the underlying conception
was far more ambivalent, not in the sense of some psychological hesitation
on the threshold of the new, but rather as something inherent in the things
themselves – most importantly, because the very sense of “thing” here was at
stake due to the changes wrought upon our sensorium by technology, in the
widest sense of the term.1

In fact, a sequel to Les Immatériaux entitled Résistances was planned, and

would have dealt with the underside of communication: noise, distortion, and
the dimension of experience that resists both consciousness and language.
This part was never completed, and what remains are only the accounts
of participants in Lyotard’s seminars. 2 It can however be understood as
aligned with the direction in which Lyotard’s own research was moving at
the time, away from the postmodern as a universe of messages and codes,
and retrieving some of his early ideas worked out already in Discours, figure:
touching, the event, and what he called “passibility”. Les Immatériaux may then
be seen in conjunction with this second exhibition that never took place. This,

1 The argument sketched out here is extracted from a forthcoming book, Spacing
Philosophy: Jean-François Lyotard and the Philosophy of the Exhibition.
2 Philippe Parreno and Hans Ulrich Obrist, The Conversation Series 14 (Cologne: Walter
König, 2008), p. 17. The specific claim that will be made throughout this essay, that
the planned sequel to Les Immatériaux was to have dealt with the resistance to com-
munication, is based on Parreno’s recollections, and in this it can obviously be con-
tested; the presence of the theme as such in the writings of Lyotard from 1985 onwards,
however, is undeniable.
246 30 Years after Les Immatériaux

of course, is a tenuous proposal. We have no way of knowing what the sequel

would have looked like, and any claims about it must remain conjectural. And
yet to undertake the task of imagining such a second part, we suggest, means
to continue Lyotard’s thought into the present, and to remain attentive to its
complexity and contradictions, both as a conceptual investigation and as a
practical task. 3

Resistance, Possibility, Infancy

If the project presented in 1985 was incomplete, at least if seen in relation
to the possibility of a sequel, then we must attempt to locate something like
an ambivalence or hesitation in the underlying conception. In fact, there
are traces of a change in Lyotard’s approach that seems to occur at roughly
the same time as Les Immatériaux – a fact which makes the exhibition into
something like a point of bifurcation, as if the unease that it aspired to bring
about in the spectators first of all struck Lyotard himself. Throughout the
books and articles that would follow, he moves away from the philosophy of
phrases and the claims about communication and the pervasive linguisticality
of experience that formed the organizational grid for Les Immatériaux – or, as
we prefer to read this juncture, he began to develop precisely this moment of
unease as that which gives thought, the unthought underside of the com-
municational paradigm as an irreducible resistance that is not simply negative,
but that into which thinking must tap in order to uphold its strange incapacity
and belatedness as a promise.

Entitled Résistances, the unrealized project for a second exhibition would likely
have focused on necessary zones of friction and on what first appears as an
irreducibly material dimension, even though such materiality in turn must dis-
place the inherited notion of matter, just as the immateriality of immaterials
is not simply a resuscitated version of Platonic ideas. Material and matter are
here not meant as mere physical inertia or passivity, as the hyle that cannot
exist other than as informed by a morphe, but as a modality of givenness as
such, a resistance that bypasses or passes in-between the sensible and the
intelligible. And if Les Immatériaux somewhat cautiously suggested that matter
was here referenced only in a contradictory fashion, Lyotard will in his sub-
sequent writings speak of matter in a sense that relays this contradiction, in
an attempt to think matter not as a metaphysical category set in opposition to
mind, soul, and consciousness, or to idea, form, and ideality, but as something
at the limit of thinking, which calls thinking forth just as it withdraws from it.

3 As a second part of this investigation, Daniel Birnbaum, Hans-Ulrich Obrist and Philippe
Parreno will curate an exhibition entitled Résistances, which will continue Lyotard’s ideas
into the present. This project informs some of the claims at the end of this essay, even
though the exact shape of this exhibition is at present still not decided.
From Immaterials to Resistance 247

From the point of view of communication, the second part of the exhibition
would have focused on its obverse side: noise, loss, scrambling, and dis-
order; all of those facets of experience that offer a resistance to transmission.
Beginning in the physical sense of resistance (as in the resistance produced in
electric circuits), the theme may obviously be expanded to cover all facets of
experience, and it belongs to the indeterminacy that is inherent just as much
in immateriality and ideality as in matter and its various cognates. Thus, even
if the first exhibition can at first sight be taken as championing various forms
of dematerialization, the attentiveness to forms of resistance was in fact
present throughout, even though in an oblique manner – which is why one
might assume that the planned sequel, at least to a certain extent, was already
present in Les Immatériaux, as a kind of undercurrent or possible counterpoint
reading against the grain. What such an exhibition would have looked like
in the mid to late 1980s must of course remain purely conjectural, and our
proposal here is rather to trace this idea of resistance as it is reflected and
inflected in many other questions and concepts that Lyotard was developing
simultaneously with Les Immatériaux, and that would follow him to the end.

One term that surfaces in some of Lyotard’s writings contemporaneous with

and adjacent to the 1985 exhibition, and which seems to gather together
many of the senses of the theme, is passibility, which we here choose as our
point of entry into this complex of ideas. The term originates in medieval
theology, where it denotes God’s capacity to be affected by the course of the
world instead of simply remaining sealed in a state of impenetrable plenitude
or “impassibility”. In modern philosophy it seems to have been taken up by
Levinas (who also became a major source for Lyotard’s reflections on the
possibility of a radicalized version of Kantian ethics from the latter part of
the ‘70s onwards), and has gained currency in some strands of contemporary
phenomenology, where it is often understood in terms of a ”radical pas-
sivity” that can draw on Husserl’s extensive manuscripts on passive syn-
thesis and explorations of the level of subjectivity that lies at the fringes of
its constitutive power.4 The above phrase “capacity to be affected” must be
understood with equal emphasis on both terms, so that the paradox that was
already present in the theological tradition is allowed to exert its full power.
In pointing to an intermediary zone, neither simply active nor passive – which
in the theological register would amount to a divine middle voice of sorts – it
opens an obscure domain of the in-between, neither first nor second, neither
the stuff of givenness nor the forming concept. In this sense, passibility
may be understood as developing what Lyotard already in Discours, figure
called “event” or “donation”, 5 and which in the later works also appears in

4 See, for instance, Didier Franck, Dramatique des phénomènes (Paris: PUF, 2001).
5 In an earlier essay, we have attempted to outline the genesis of these themes in
Lyotard’s early work – which, however, will remain in the background here. See Daniel
Birnbaum and Sven-Olov Wallenstein, “Figuring the Matrix: Lyotard’s Les Immatériaux,
248 30 Years after Les Immatériaux

the guise of “touching”, “presence”, or “gift”, drawing on the Kantian sublime,

Heidegger’s Ereignis and the es gibt, as well as affectivity in Freud.

Implicated in all of these references is a peculiar structure of time as delay

and deferral, which Lyotard often describes in terms of the Freudian con-
cept Nachträglichkeit, a “deferred action” that scrambles the before/after
structure of consciousness. For Lyotard, rather than being simply the
opposition to presence, deferral will prove to be fundamentally entangled
with it, fusing into a complex idea of presence itself as deferral. Presence and
delay are thus not two distinct ideas, but make up a constellation in which
presence eventually becomes an overarching term for that which is elusive
or even erased in experience; that which resists the unifying capacity of the
retentional and protentional structure of consciousness, while yet being
given in a way that holds consciousness captive, haunting it in the form of an
event or an occurrence that it struggles to grasp.6 In the essay “Time Today”,
Lyotard writes: “What memorizes or retains is not a capacity of the mind, nor
even inaccessibility to what occurs, but, in the event, the ungraspable and
undeniable ‘presence’ of a something which is other than the mind, and which,
‘from time to time’, occurs.” 7 For Lyotard, however, the event is not only some
overpowering or disruptive occurrence, as in the Freudian trauma, but more
like a constant dimension of experience itself, the eventhood or “eventuality”
of that which touches us at the level of affective sensibility – which is also
why it becomes an important concept in aesthetics, even though the latter is
a term that Lyotard distrusts, perhaps hastily, because of what he sees as its
pacifying nature. The event signals the irruption of something in the sensible,
in the aisthesis, that demands to be articulated, and calls forth our capacity of

In a different register, the delay of the event, the temporal fold that joins past
and present, in Lyotard also receives the name of “infancy”.8 Infancy, as the
etymology in-fans signals, is located before language, though not merely in a

1985”, in Thordis Arrhenius, Mari Lending, Wallis Miller and Jéremie Michael McGowan
(eds.), Place and Displacement: Exhibiting Architecture (Baden: Lars Müller, 2014).
6 Lyotard often explicitly, but perhaps too hastily, denies that phenomenology would
be able to approach such a presence. His use of ”presence”, however, comes close
to Heidegger’s term Anwesen, ”presencing”, understood as a verb, in opposition to
presence as Anwesenheit, the form or modality of that which is present, i.e. beings.
Presencing is that which remains concealed in the present, belonging to the dimension
of the event (Ereignis) as that which ”gives” but cannot be apprehended as given in the
entity. Lyotard’s presence might in this sense be read as belonging to a phenomenology
”éclatée”, as Dominique Janicaud calls it (without any reference to Lyotard); see
Dominique Janicaud, Phenomenology ”Wide Open”: After the French Debate, trans. Charles
N. Cabral (New York: Fordham University Press, 2005).
7 Jean-François Lyotard, The Inhuman: Reflections on Time, trans. Geoffrey Bennington and
Rachel Bowlby (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1991), p. 75.
8 For a rich exploration of this theme that rarely refers to Lyotard, yet remains close
to him in many respects, see Christopher Fynsk, Infant Figures (Stanford: Stanford
From Immaterials to Resistance 249

chronological sense, but also as an underlying order that subsists throughout

adult life in its entirety. It is never accessible to memory and conscious rep-
resentation, but only given as a “debt” that we can never pay off, and as such
it also has a close proximity to an aesthetic that must remain at the limits
of aisthesis because it touches us, as an event, at the fringes of the sensible,
before the ego has acquired any definite shape. In the essay “Prescription”
Lyotard suggests that “aesthetics has to do with this first touch: the one that
touched when I was not there… The touch has its place and moment in a
savage or alien space and time that are foreign to the law. And to the extent
that it maintains itself, persists in the mode of this immemorial space-time,
this savagery or this sinful peregrination is always there as a potential of the
body.” 9 Childhood can in this way even be understood as “inhuman”, in that
it exceeds our life as rational subjects, and its mode of being is that of the
remainder, of return and haunting. In another register, however, it is also what
is eminently human, because its “distress heralds and promises things pos-
sible” as well as “manifests to this [adult] community the lack of humanity it is
suffering from”.10

The response to this touch or event on the part of thinking must take the
form of writing, Lyotard sometimes suggests, a writing that originates in
the body – which in relation to Les Immatériaux would mean to complete the
trajectory that the exhibition proposes in the opposite direction, taking us
from language to body: to return to the body means to uncover the other
side of “the immaterials”, their inescapable resistance to universalization and
translation into numerics, though not in the sense of an origin or ground in
a life-world that would precede them as an anexact and more fluid material
on which idealizations are performed.11 But this infant body can also – and
perhaps more surprisingly, since, unlike what Lyotard here refers to as the
“phenomenological body”, it withdraws us from the world of transitivity and
relations – be taken as a source of resistance in a much more straightfor-
ward sense. This comes across in the essay on Orwell’s 1984 in Le postmoderne
expliqué aux enfants, where Lyotard looks to the main character Winston’s
attempt to retrieve a different language inside the official lies by probing into
a childhood that is his own and no one else’s, which still invites a “sharing

University Press, 2000). For a study of Lyotard’s later phase, see Geoffrey Bennington,
Late Lyotard (CreateSpace, 2008).
9 Jean-François Lyotard, Lectures d’enfance (Paris: Galilée, 1991), p. 39.
10 Lyotard, The Inhuman, p. 4.
11 This would be Husserl’s answer, as presented in the Crisis texts from the late 1930s.
Lyotard’s path would rather seem to take him into the vicinity of Heidegger. It is only by
following the movement of technology to the end, through its consummate emptying
out of humanism, that we can begin to grasp its essence as something other than
250 30 Years after Les Immatériaux

of sensibility that it can and should take as communal”.12 Such a sharing has
its obvious predecessor in the Kantian sensus communis, and Lyotard is here
at once close to and far from Arendt’s political philosophy,13 but also to the
Benjamin of One Way Street and Berlin Childhood: what is important is not the
singular facts in their empirical specificity, but a “childhood of the event”, that
which brings us together precisely by not being captured.

Against the theories of pragmatics and communication that were at stake

already in the first discussion of the postmodern condition, but also shifting
the accent from the systematic analysis of phrases in Le Différend, these later
texts suggest that it is on the basis of and drawing from the incommunicable
and incommensurable in our experiences that we communicate, rather than
through a shared set of contents and claims about the world, or through the
application of a set of transcendental rules that would govern the formation
of phrases and arguments. While the incommensurability between phrase
regimes was one of the major themes of Le Différend, and the theme of blanks,
caesuras, and silences was essential for the analysis of why phrases must be
linked to each other in the absence of defined rules (so that silence too is a
phrase like any other), in the later writings the dimension of the body and its
affectivity, which was largely absent from the philosophy of phrases, returns
and provides the idea of blanks and gaps in language with a different kind of
depth. That which lies in between phrases is not just silence and gaps, but
indicates a dimension of affectivity and sensibility that is the precondition for
phrasing as such.

The Crisis of Foundations

In a little-noticed text from 1989, “Argumentation et présentation: La crise des
fondements”,14 Lyotard speaks of this depth, as something that on the one
hand – depending on one’s philosophical convictions – threatens or promises
to disappear, and on the other ceaselessly returns as a mirage or an infinite
task, in terms of a crisis of foundations. Understood in the most general sense,
the crisis has no doubt been around since the dawn of Greek philosophy (krisis
in fact being one, or perhaps the, key operative term already in the Poem of
Parmenides), but has acquired a particular depth in modernity, especially
after the violent transformations of the sense of space and time – of the

12 Jean-François Lyotard, Le postmoderne expliqué aux enfants (Paris: Galilée, 1986), p.

13 See ”Le survivant”, in Lectures d’enfance.
14 The text was originally published in André Jacob (ed.), Encyclopédie philosophique uni-
verselle, vol. 1, L’univers philosophique (Paris: PUF, 1989), p. 738–50, and has not been
reprinted in any of Lyotard’s books. It is here cited from the English translation by Chris
Turner, in Cultural Politics, Volume 9, Issue 2 ( July 2013), p. 117–143.
From Immaterials to Resistance 251

“transcendental aesthetic” as delineated by Kant – and continues to haunt our

present in an even more intensified form.

Historically, the phrase “foundation crisis” stems from the debates that
occupied the mathematical and physical sciences during the early decades
of the twentieth century, and it concerned the very sense of the reality to
which theories could refer once the classical conceptions in science had been
discarded. For Lyotard, this implied a blow against the referential as well as
pragmatic values that traditional science could rely on, a profound mutation
in thought’s relation to its other, to something like being itself. The aporia
of the given and the constructed imposed itself throughout philosophy
and the various sciences, and just as the idea of a foundation that would be
simply given appeared increasingly tenuous, so the claims about a univocal
and rational method of construction became doubtful as more and more
paradoxes emerged in the foundations of logic and mathematics. Many
analyses, direct and indirect, were proposed, from the sense-data recon-
structions of logical positivism to the life-world of Husserl and the clearing
of being in Heidegger, and Lyotard suggests that what is at stake here is the
question from where the object would be “ob-jected”: that is, whether there is
anything at all that precedes our constructions, or if the technical efficacy of
science is simply all that remains.

For Lyotard, this crisis, in all the various contradictory shapes that it
took, cannot be solved in the way proposed by Karl-Otto Apel, that is, by
recourse to a “metapragmatics” that locates the ground of reason in rules
of argumentation, themselves in turn founded in a community of rational
agents.15 This solution is based on the idea of a universal and transcendental
communicational competence that aspires to displace the foundational
claims made by philosophers like Husserl and Descartes by showing that all
such claims already presuppose communication. In this, Apel’s rejection of
earlier version of foundationalism provides yet another ultimate foundation
of reason, this time by recourse to an idea of ultimate rules of argumentation
that must be (indeed have always necessarily been) respected in all other
previous or future foundational language games in order for them to make
sense, and in this way can lay claim to a transcendental status. As Lyotard
remarks, however, Apel remains largely silent on the content of these rules,
somewhat vaguely referring to a common focus on the problem to be solved,
or the aspiration to achieve rational consensus – and perhaps, one might

15 Apel cites Wittgenstein, who speaks of a “system” within which any “confirmation and
disconfirmation of a hypothesis takes place”, a system which is “not so much the point
of departure, as the element in which arguments have their life”. See Ludwig Wittgen-
stein, On Certainty, trans. Denis Paul and G.E.M. Anscombe (Oxford: Blackwell, 1974), sec.
105. For Lyotard this element is not so much a system as a field of a “certain pre-cogito
phenomenology” that he locates in Merleau-Ponty’s The Visible and the Invisible, which
shows the renewed relevance of phenomenological themes in Lyotard’s later work.
252 30 Years after Les Immatériaux

add, necessarily so, since any more substantial specification would already
commit him to a particular philosophical claim and deprive the rules of their
“meta”-pragmatic status; they would be yet another move in the game, and
not the condition for the game – any game – as such. Against this, Lyotard
suggests that what advances the sciences is rather the scrambling and
breaking of rules – scientists are more prone to empirical than transcendental
pragmatics, he somewhat ironically quips. The transcendental account in fact
always comes too late, and is incapable of elucidating the emergence of the
new, of the eventful dimension of thinking. In this, the discourse of science is
more akin to the moves made in ordinary language – and, we might add, to
philosophy, as Lyotard will later say in Le Différend, where it is the very sense
and even possibility of any such rules that are the objects of discussion, and
thinking must proceed in an experimental fashion without any once-and-for-
all pre-established guidelines. What it means to think philosophically cannot
be decided through a recourse to pre-existing rules; rather, the rules are
what results from the process of thought, which itself is in search of the rules
that guide it. And in this philosophy communicates with both science and
art through a common zone of indeterminacy – which, however, they inhabit
differently, we might say.

With respect to the idea of foundations, for Lyotard this necessitates a reap-
praisal of what must precede all rational constructions, for which he finds
the resources in Kant – or, more precisely, in a Kant reread in the light of our
present concerns, which the sciences at the horizon of the Critique of Pure
Reason foreclosed by offering securities that are no longer our own. The ques-
tion of foundation has to do with space and time, or more generally the idea
of something sensible as such, which is something on which all constructions
are made, though itself not there as a given, but rather as that which is with-
drawn. In Kant, Lyotard suggests, there is already an attempt at “tracing the
path toward an infancy of thought that is always presupposed in its adult age
(which is argumentative) and ever present as something concealed”,16 and
which becomes even more pronounced as we move from the space-time of
the first Critique to the rather different approach of the third Critique, which
provides the bridge to Lyotard’s own reflections on the possibilities and limits
of aesthetics. Here the pre-objective domain is what gives rise to a reflective
judgement that bears on “feeling”, in a “plasmatic” state, in a way that for
Lyotard underlies all other claims, rather than just being an intermediary
capacity located between cognition and ethics: “Kantian aesthetics, in its
architectonic guise, teaches us something much more radical: that reflexive
judgement is, if not constitutive, then at least required by the other faculties of

16 “Foundation Crisis”, p. 126.

From Immaterials to Resistance 253

knowledge and that feeling is the primordial, fundamental mode of reception

of any givenness.”17

This is also where he once more comes back to his earlier discussions of
Merleau-Ponty in Discours, figure, and how the analogy with the visual field
might allow us to approach the layer of the pre-objective: “the analogy is not
an arbitrary one, since the ‘free-floating forms’, to which Kant refers the aes-
thetic feeling, also constitute without a doubt the weft or, as Merleau-Ponty
has it, the ‘nervures’ of the field of perception … [even] ‘nervures of being.’”18
And yet – and in this the claims of Discours, figure against the phenomenology
of perception as well as against the phenomenological “flesh of the world”
remain in place – there is always a difference in the visual, an invisibility for
which terms like non-presentable and sublime may stand as markers. This
once more signals a departure from Merleau-Ponty, which is not just one of
vocabulary – since the invisible here is not what already begins to transcend
the sensible in the form of ideas and concepts – but the moment of donation
that underlies the sensible and only can be reached through a dispossession
of subjectivity of a more radical nature than that attained through the descent
into the flesh. If the aesthetic takes us toward this region, it is thus also,
always, as an ”anaesthetic” that opens towards the event.

At the end of this essay, however, Lyotard suggests that this crisis of
foundations can in fact be overcome in a way that does not preserve
the dimension of the event, but rather produces something like its final
occultation. This could perhaps be understood as something like a crisis
of the crisis – or, in Heideggerian terms that Lyotard here perhaps brushes
aside too quickly, the forgetting of forgetting, the technological erasure of
the withdrawal that is necessary for beings to appear – and he envisages
the possibility that donation might have become a calculable construct,
a physis synthetically produced in “technoscience”, in a way that directly
picks up the basic theme of Les Immatériaux. “The new techne”, he writes,
“in keeping with the essential concept of fingere inherent in it, enables us to
obtain not only ‘results’ in all sorts of calculations but sounds, colors, or, in
other words, materials and arrangements of things both musical and plastic.
These are now replacing ‘forms’ that arise out of the synthetic power of the
imagination, or out of the Other. They are not apprehended reflexively; they
are determined by calculations, both in their ‘design’ and in their restitution
and dissemination. And calculation includes not only the work that occupies
the time of computer engineers but also the – itself constitutive – accounting
of spaces and times (including all those known as working spaces and times)
expended in the production and dissemination of synthetic materials and

17 Ibid., p. 128.
18 Ibid., p. 133.
254 30 Years after Les Immatériaux

forms.”19 “Anthropologically”, Lyotard concludes, this transfer from intuition to

calculation and construction can be interpreted as ”an emancipation of human
beings from their condition as earthly animals”; “transcendentally”, on the
other hand, such a crisis “remains to be thought through”. 20 It is to this thinking
through that the work after Les Immatériaux was dedicated.

Rewriting Freud
It is at this juncture of Lyotard’s work that Freud too returns, and the exchange
between psychoanalysis and phenomenology begun in Discours, figure is
taken up again, albeit in a transformed fashion. If, in his early work, Lyotard
arrived at a set of affirmative claims about energies and forces, these will now
be displaced by what he sometimes, with a term borrowed from Lacan, calls
“the Thing” (la Chose), a body that is held hostage to something that it cannot
decipher. This is the infant body, not in a simply chronological sense, but as
a site of pre-inscription that will always remain with us, drawing together the
birth of the subject as conditioned by the sexual difference and the emergence
of something out of nothing in terms of the ontological difference, so that the
priority between them becomes entangled and undecidable.

In this renewed reading of Freud, the idea of passibility is worked out in terms
of affectivity, which in many ways pursues old themes, but also gives them a
new twist. While the philosophy of phrases in Le Différend has evacuated the
possibility of the physics or metaphysics of drives that once underwrote the
claim that “The Dream-Work Does Not Think” (as reads the title of one of the
central chapters in Discours, figure), it nevertheless opens a more positive
approach to language, though one that still wants to steer clear of the theory
of the signifier that for Lyotard limits the Lacanian approach, to which he
nevertheless remains close. While, as we have noted, already in Le Différend
phrases are understood as events in a broad sense, constituting a category
that expands beyond the narrowly linguistic to include silences and affects,
this latter dimension ultimately remained marginal in the earlier book, and the
dynamic and affective dimension of the Kantian faculties was largely over-
shadowed by Wittgensteinian motifs. In this sense it is no doubt significant
that Wittgenstein’s importance will diminish as we move into Lyotard’s final
phase, when the connection to phenomenology and psychoanalysis will be
made once more.

In the new approach, the unconscious is reconstructed as an “inarticulate

phrase”, or an “affect-phrase”. This phrastic quality does not mean that it
presents a universe according to the axes sense-reference and sender-
receiver. What is presented is rather a feeling of pleasure and pain that

19 Ibid., p. 140.
20 Ibid., p. 140f.
From Immaterials to Resistance 255

remains non-localizable with respect to the coordinates of the universe of

language as the presentation of something objective; and as we will see, in
this it is akin to the feeling of pleasure and pain as laid out in Kant’s third
Critique, which provides a bridge to aesthetics. What transpires is that there is
something there, there is an “it happens” which, however, is betrayed as soon
as it is translated into a communicative language.

This new take on the unconscious is spelt out in detail in the essay “Emma”, 21
where Lyotard interrogates one of the case histories in Freud’s 1895 Project
for a Scientific Psychology, which indeed is one of Freud’s most physicalist
texts, where he speaks of forces that produce “facilitations” (Bahnungen) in
a way that would draw him close to Lyotard’s early conception of energetics.
What comes across in this later reading by Lyotard, however, is the problem
of time, of how events are inscribed and become meaningful in a particular
structure of deferral. The unconscious affect, Lyotard suggests, can remain
unrecognized while still entering into consciousness through a substitute that
cannot be understood.

The patient Emma’s fear of going to the store alone is, in Freud’s analysis,
linked to two scenes from her childhood; neither of which, however, is
sufficient to account for her present state. Lyotard suggests that they must
be understood as overlaid, so that the first scene only produces its traumatic
affect when it is remembered and activated at a subsequent stage, in a kind of
retroactive or inverted causality that is at the basis of Freud’s theory of Nach-
träglichkeit. In Lyotard’s reading of the Emma case, what is important is Freud’s
idea of a primal repression – that is, an object that never was conscious, and
which may account for the presence of originary formations in the uncon-
scious, as was already suggested in the elusive position given to the matrix in
Discours, figure.

For Lyotard, the possibility of this primal repression signals something like a
pure passibility, where the affect is inscribed without ever being conscious,
and only appears at the later stage; a capacity for being affected regardless of
whether the event can be represented or not, which implies that the active-
passive distinction is derivative in relation to such primordial events. Such an
event cannot be represented or remembered; it is a pure event, and its time
is the present, the here and now; while – from the point of view of conscious-
ness, and of what can be named in language – it will never have been there
at all as a content. The pure presence eludes consciousness, structurally,
while consciousness as such is held in the grip of this presence, which is what
locates it in a childhood beyond memory.

21 In Jean-François Lyotard, Misère de la philosophie (Paris: Galilée, 2000). For a lucid dis-
cussion of this text in relation to Lacan, see Anne Tomiche, “Rephrasing the Freudian
Unconscious: Lyotard’s Affect-Phrase”, in Diacritics, Vol. 24, No. 1 (Spring, 1994), p. 43–62.
256 30 Years after Les Immatériaux

This dimension also comes across in that particular quality of language known
as timbre, which Lyotard investigates in another essay, “Voix”, dedicated to the
problem of language in psychoanalysis. What lies at the core of the Freudian
enterprise, at a depth that may have escaped Freud himself to the extent that
analysis remains modelled on Socratic dialogue, is not speech in the sense
of the Aristotelian lexis, i.e. statements that would be situated along the axes
of the universe of communication and transmit an objective content, but the
sounding of the phone, the inarticulate and passionate dimension of a voice
that directly indicates affects – or more precisely, is the affect as indicative of
itself, “tautegorical”, 22 Lyotard says – rather than inscribing them as a moment
of representation. The phone escapes the temporal order of the signifying
chain and its interlocutors, in which a first “I” relates to a second “you”, even-
tually convertible to objective third-person propositions that may be reported
in a case study, ultimately becoming a theme for public, scientific discourse,
with its “transcendental pragmatics” and rule-bound exchanges. The phone is
simply there, as a tone or timbre just as elusive as it is insistent, in a now that
defies the order of time as the structure of before and after; and it cannot
even be attributed to a subject that would be its bearer, but rather belongs
to the same dimension as the in-fans, the speechless and affective life that
haunts all language, also and perhaps most insistently in its silence, in not
being heard, or in disrupting the order of the lexis.

What is ultimately at stake in these later meditations on Freud’s writings

is perhaps not the truth about the Freudian texts themselves, even
though Lyotard remains a scrupulous reader, sometimes even to the point
of obscuring his more general claims. In Discours, figure, regardless of
the suspicion against conceptual synthesis and argumentative closure,
psychoanalysis could still be marshalled against the phenomenology of the
body and visual depth as a discourse that would somehow be more true, closer
to the event and the donation, and could be opposed to the philosophical
project as such, which Lyotard at the time perceived as inextricably bound
up with a Platonist downgrading of the disruptive force at work inside or
beneath the sensible. However, just as inevitably as, say, the Nietzschean
overturning of metaphysics as analysed by Heidegger, this countermove
tended to produce yet another metaphysics, this time centred around the
“drives”, as Lyotard would later say. Against this, the later texts no longer pose
as anti- or counter-philosophical, but propose as the task of philosophy to
listen to that which lies underneath the lexis, communication, and the subject,
not in order to dispel them in favour of some more originary power or energy
(the “libidinal”, as it was called in the earlier texts), but rather to uncover a

22 Lectures d’enfance, p. 137. The term “tautegorical” is also used by Lyotard to describe the
Kantian sublime, in its capacity to disclose to us how it feels to think; see Lyotard, Leçons
sur l’analytique du sublime (Kant, Critique de la faculté de juger, §§ 23–29) (Paris: Galilée,
1991), p. 26.
From Immaterials to Resistance 257

different stratum – the passible, infancy – that they always presuppose. In this,
psychoanalysis, art, and a certain albeit reluctantly accepted phenomenology,
are allies, not because any one of them would be more true, but because each
of them, in their particular way, are attempts to grasp the same ungraspable
and ineluctable condition.

The Limits of Communication

In the present context, it is particularly relevant to see how the theme of an
irreducible obverse side to the lexis already from the outset comes to rework
the idea of communication from within, so that it appears precisely as that
which art must resist in order to preserve its proper, eventful dimension, that
within the aesthetic that makes aesthetics as a discipline possible but also
eludes it.

In an essay that was composed roughly out at the same time as Les
Immatériaux opened, “Something Like: ‘Communication… without Com-
munication’”, 23 Lyotard radically questions the idea of communication that at
first glance seems like the unquestioned point of departure for the exhibition.
The starting point for the essay is the respective and seemingly incompatible
claims by Kant and Adorno, firstly that the faculty of judging is what renders
our feeling universally communicable (mitteilbar) without the mediation of a
concept (Kant), secondly that no work of art should be understood through
the category of communication (Adorno). However, rather than an opposition,
Lyotard here sees both claims as differently phrased, although in the end
not incompatible, reactions to Hegel’s sublation of art into the concept,
and in both he perceives the continuity of a quest for the possibility of a
non-conceptual communication. It is precisely this communication without
communication that is extinguished in modern communication theories
and technologies, and finally in an art-industry that, in a phrase that echoes
Horkheimer and Adorno’s analysis of the culture industry, “would be a com-
pletion of speculative metaphysics, a way in which Hegel is present, has
succeeded, in Hollywood”. 24

Against this Lyotard marshals the Kantian analysis of the judgement of

taste as something that is always presumed, a feeling or sentimentality that
also requires a particular kind of community anterior to communication
and pragmatics (the choice of terms here translating Lyotard’s resistance
to the theories of communicative action and transcendental pragmatics in
Habermas and Apel). This he calls a “passibility to space and time, necessary

23 The text was first presented as a lecture at the conference “Art et communication,”
organized by Robert Allezaud at the Sorbonne in October 1985.
24 Lyotard, The Inhuman, p. 115.
258 30 Years after Les Immatériaux

forms of aesthesis”, 25 whose very possibility implicitly would then be what is

fundamentally at stake in the world of immaterials, where “calculated situ-
ations are put forward as an aesthetic”, 26 and where the demand for efficiency,
performance, and malleability have by far superseded the cybernetic theories
that formed the horizon of Heidegger’s meditations on the essence of
technology in the 1950s.

This passibility is neither an activity of forming a giving matter nor the

simple passivity of receiving it, but rather, once more in continuity with the
central theme of Discours, figure, presupposes a “donation” as “something
fundamental, originary”, 27 that eludes our control and mastery. In the Kantian
vocabulary employed by Lyotard here, this would not be the determinable
matter given in an intuition that in fact is there only as already determined
by the categories of the understanding, and a such only separable through
a secondary reflection, but something that seizes us without already being
part of cognition, and without necessarily being destined to become such
a part. The origin of this gift however remains concealed, it is an X that
Lyotard here refers not only to the Kantian transcendental object = x (in
fact somewhat misleadingly, since this “x” is not a part of the conceptual
structure of the third Critique that he here draws on, but belongs specifically
to the analysis of cognition in the first Critique, as its constitutive limit), but
also, and perhaps more pertinently, to Heidegger’s being as the withdrawn
side of the ontological difference. The x is what gives matter for reflection
and determination, and it is on it, perhaps even on its erasure or ruins, that
we construct or aesthetic philosophies. The feeling that accompanies it is
a “welcoming of what is given”, 28 and it is what ultimately renders the sub-
ject open to the world in a way that will also hold this world in suspense. The
violence of donation and of a truth that “detonates” – which were the guiding
ideas of Discours, figure as the argument moved from the still harmonious
views of the phenomenologies of perception and the flesh to the unthinkable
and unrepresentable primary process in Freud – here give way to a more
benign, or perhaps neutral, conception of welcoming, giving, and gift that
comes from Heidegger, although this is a heritage towards which Lyotard
will remain ambivalent to the end, and not only for political reasons, but first
and foremost because the response to the withdrawal of presence for him
is an open-ended experimentation that he, rightly or wrongly, perceives to be
missing in Heidegger.

This passible moment, the there now that is given only in a temporal spasm
that precludes any there or now from being simply there and now, but only

25 Ibid., p. 110.
26 Ibid.
27 Ibid., p. 111.
28 Ibid.
From Immaterials to Resistance 259

allows them to be understood in an act of anamnesis or “re-writing”, is

necessarily forgotten in representation and all the modes of production of
reality that draw on modern communication technologies, it is their always
presupposed and yet elusive underside. And yet it is precisely not opposed
to them, but what makes them possible, which is why the immaterials of com-
munication and resistance belong together, and one without the other would
only give us a limited and distorted picture.

If we disregard this originary entanglement, the idea of resistance might

seem to once more ensnare us in a dualist conception, where donation, the
gift, and the domain of originary passibility only appear as that which distorts
communication, as a kind of negativity and noise that in the end contrib-
utes nothing positive to thinking and experience. But as Lyotard notes, this is
“because we think of presence according to the exclusive modality of mas-
terful intervention”, 29 and creation only as a mode of technical construction at
the expense of the openness to the eventfulness of the event; it must be both,
anamnesis and construction, a memory of withdrawn presence and the exper-
imental gay science unfolding in its wake.

In other words, if this withdrawal in some respects entails a loss of experience,

a hollowing out of the subject, it has however itself to be thought and felt, also
as an opening towards other dimensions of sensibility and experience. The
exhibition becomes a way of doing this, i.e., not just to “signify” the difference
between what in Discours, figure still appeared as the “space of the subject
and the system”, but also to render this difference itself and its effects on
us palpable. Thus the necessity of confronting “works” in the widest sense
of the term – including not only the fine arts, but also science, technological
artefacts, theories, modes of writing – with each other in order to produce
the “unease” that a philosophical proposal, in the coherence and closure that
inevitably characterize it, cannot avoid dispelling, and thus the need of an
exhibitionary mode that expose thinking to an outside.

An Aesthetic of Presence
A term that more and more comes to the fore throughout Lyotard’s later
writings on art is “presence”. In what way should we understand this term?
At first, it may seem to signal a somewhat surprisingly direct return to a
phenomenology of perception and of the body, based in an aesthetic vision
that underscores the material presence of artworks, touch, gesture, and a
whole vocabulary that reinstalls precisely those motifs that Les Immatériaux
would have deemed no longer possible. For some, this shift amounts to
a nostalgic turn that, possibly under the influence of Heidegger, or more
generally a phenomenological suspicion towards technology, discarded the

29 Ibid., p. 118.
260 30 Years after Les Immatériaux

radical perspective of invention and creation that was at the basis of Les
Immatériaux. 30 As we will see, even though this characterization might be mis-
leading as an account of Lyotard’s development, it points to a set of problems
in the late work that must be addressed. While the shift was not only already
part of the initial statement of Les Immatériaux, but also corresponds to a
motif that was there in Lyotard’s thought from the beginning of his trajectory,
it is also true that many of the claims that we find in his later writings perhaps
tend to short-circuit the possibilities of his inquiry, in tying it too closely to
particular forms of art in a way that immobilizes the exchange of concepts and
particulars. In short, as we will argue, to remain faithful to the path opened
up here, we must question some of Lyotard’s examples, at least to the extent
that they take on too much of a paradigmatic value, and in fact, in spite of the
open-ended and hesitant philosophical character of his late writings, seem to
resuscitate many traditional topoi of art theory.

From a certain distance, no doubt a respectful one and yet a distance,

the term presence obviously refers to Derrida and the problem of the
metaphysics of presence inherited from Heidegger (and the term “decon-
struction” sometimes appears in the later writings, without further
explication, in a way similar to Discours, figure). Lyotard’s presence is however
rather the opposite of Derrida’s, or rather, it bears a strong resemblance to
the kind of thinking that Derrida was trying to articulate through concepts
like trace, différance, and spacing, precisely as the limits to the metaphysics
of presence. Lyotard’s presence signals the moment of what must remain
elusive in the sensible, although by way of a difference that is announced in
and by the sensible; it is a sensible no longer understood in opposition to the
intelligible, but as a dimension of its own, which is why it also draws close to
the immaterial materiality already at stake in Les Immatériaux. Colors, words,
gestures, sounds are on the one hand what is presented, on the other hand
they withdraw from presentation, and this duplicity is what gives the aes-
thetic dimension its privileged role; not however as a fullness or richness of
sense that would have been betrayed in objectivity and technoscientific con-
structions, as the traditional phenomenological answer from Husserl’s Krisis
onward has been, but as a more enigmatic kind of poverty of sense, a “thing”
that does not even address us, or remains turned away in its very address.

It is true that Lyotard often displays a profound suspicion toward the term
aesthetics, which he associates to a tradition that finds its resources in Kant’s
third Critique and the Analytic of beauty, and its claims about beauty and
harmony. Against this, he pits the Analytic of the sublime with its disruption
of beauty’s consonance, which for him signals an “anaesthetic” power that
shatters form and the transitive relation of concept and world.

30 As has been suggested by Jean-Louis Déotte, in “Les Immatériaux de Lyotard (1985): un

programme figural”, Appareil 10 (2012).
From Immaterials to Resistance 261

Lyotard has given us many versions of this particular claim, sometimes in

a way that seems to straightforwardly disavow the basic ideas explored
in Les Immatériaux. In the brief essay “Two Forms of Abstraction” (1988) he
suggests that art today – somewhat surprisingly claimed to be generally
characterized by “abstraction” – follows two main avenues. The first he calls
Hegelian, or an art of the “understanding”, of the Verstand, where forms are
posited as exterior to content, allowing beauty to become kitsch, without
any density of singular experience. Such is the art, he suggests, produced
through computation, synthesis, and technology – claims that are difficult
not to read as directed against many of the items that were selected for
Les Immatériaux, where the claim often seemed to be a discovery of a con-
tinuum between art from the early avant-garde onward and the new forms
of everyday technologies that render the limits of the body and perception
fluid and insecure. The second tendency, only briefly alluded to in the text,
instead follows the line traced out by the Kantian sublime, with its emphasis
on the unpresentable, and leads up to a final alternative that once more
seems to render aesthetics impossible, or at least without any purchase on
what is essential: “caught between the two kinds of abstraction that I have just
outlined, that of understanding which determines visual data, and that which
clings to the indeterminable material presence hidden in the presentation
of data, thus torn apart, how can an aesthetics, a reflection on the pleasure
provided by the beauty of free forms, perpetuate itself?” 31 Now, while the first
line seems to usher in a pessimistic view of art, the second opens the question
of the work as event, as Lyotard underlines in another essay, “The Pictorial
Event Today” (1993): “The intrinsic vacuity of the pictorial institution does not
at all change the necessity of the gesture of painting, its ‘call’ to be carried
out.” 32 This gesture of painting does not lead to a display of already recognized
cultural forms, but opens onto a thought that mobilizes a different type of
body: ”Painting is the thought of painting, but its thought-body. It operates
in, with and against the space-time and matter-color: the sensorium of the
seeing body.” 33 Rather than celebrating the visual as a plenitude that would be
the result of creation and subjective expression, the work is an appearance
in which an apparition happens, by way of a particular negation of the visual:
“The pictorial factum is completely different: it turns the chromatic (or formal,
etc.) appearance into an apparition by marking the aistheton (the sensible)
with a hallmark of its threatening suppression. The visuality of painting always
retrieves itself up on blindness.” 34 It is not directed to sight, but to what is
“incarcerated in sight”, and “transforms appearance into apparition, like the

31 Jean-François Lyotard, Textes dispersés I: Esthétique et théorie de l’art / Miscellaneous Texts

I: Aesthetics and Theory of Art (Leuven: Leuven University Press, 2012), p. 199.
32 Ibid., p. 227.
33 Ibid.
34 Ibid., p. 228.
262 30 Years after Les Immatériaux

poem changes words, vehicles in the communicational field, into uncertain

asteroids enveloped in nothingness.” 35

This process is for Lyotard precisely what gets lost in aesthetics. But would
it not be equally pertinent, in fact more so, to see both moments as integral
part of aesthetics, first of all since this is explicitly the case in Kant? The
resource of such an aesthetic critique of reason, which is part of a long
tradition extending far beyond the particular claims of Lyotard, is not that it
fetishizes a sensibility that would in general be refractory to conceptual sub-
sumption – although it sometimes does this too – but that it demands that
such resistance be articulated in works that must always be approached as
singular events, whose particular presence and take on the concept-sense
divide cannot be derived from a general theory. This is in fact sometimes
highlighted and even pushed to an extreme by Lyotard, to the effect that the
only adequate philosophical response would be to surrender to the singular
– once more a temptation to anti-philosophy, as it were, which in the end may
prove as much a dead end as the unquestioned confidence in the subsuming
gesture of philosophical aesthetics. This question of singularity, understood
as a challenge to theory rather than its mere demise, is in fact what opens
the problem of writing, as it once also did for Adorno: aesthetic theory, to the
extent that it wants to measure itself to what is at stake in the works, is not
theory that would have “the aesthetic” as one of its objects, but it is writing
that itself must become constellation, in search of its own rules, without
thereby merely emulating literature or some other artistic form. Just as little
as the artwork can be accounted for by what it says, let alone “communicates”,
can philosophical reflection, to the extent that it, as Adorno demands, steps
into the monad of the work, settle for generalities, even though it is, as such,
inevitably bound up with conceptual work, which is why aesthetic theory is
still theory, even if not simply a theory of something that it would encounter as
a set of mere external particulars. Aesthetic theory does not have objects that
are simply there, but must in a certain way constitute the objects as questions
at the same moment as it constitutes itself as a theory, in an exchange that
renders both poles of the equation just as problematic.

It is however just as significant as it is problematic that Lyotard chooses

to focus his later reflections almost exclusively on painting, not just in the
biographical sense that his writings for various reasons dealt with painters like
Jacques Monory, Valerio Adami, Sam Francis, Karel Appel, and many others,
but also because of the philosophical weight given to a particular medium,
to the extent that it is precisely painting that is given the role of challenging
the philosopher to surrender in the face of what cannot be articulated. While
Lyotard constantly rejects a certain art-historical approach, and instead wants
to understand the works from within, precisely as questions to thought, he

35 Ibid.
From Immaterials to Resistance 263

remains strangely dependent on a set of claims inherited from the history of

modernist painting, which as it were takes its revenge all the more since this
historical narrative is claimed to have been suspended.

Thus, in these writings, Lyotard both pushes his own anaesthetic to the limit
– of which surrender is one, although perhaps not the most productive form –
and rehearses of series of surprisingly conventional claims that often seem to
take him back to the rhetoric of action painting. In the book on Appel, Lyotard
thus speaks of the necessity “to terminate the authority of arguments and to
disturb the calm assurance of philosophical aesthetics”, 36 and what occasions
this surrender is colour, or rather the “gesture of colour” that provides the
book with its title, Un geste de couleur. Appel, according to Lyotard, approaches
colour as that “which is there before form and concepts”, 37 and like Pollock,
Appel would inscribe colour through a gesture that transfers the body onto
the canvas, in a movement “not mediated by a concept, images, schemas,
memories”, but as “colour itself”. 38 Colour is what transforms matter, leading
it to “vibrate,” and finally is itself that which performs the “dance”. In the book
on Sam Francis, Leçons de tenèbres, he finds a similar surrender to the chro-
matic material, this time inflected through darkness, whose “lesson” is that we
must look to “the substance of which light is made”, leading Francis’ painting
to “emanate from a blind void, (…) vanishing towards Black”. 39

In this way, painting more and more becomes the very name of thought.
Rather than a particular art form with its history and institutions, it appears
as a cipher for the ineffable, as if divested of that historical specificity which
it still retains, precisely in the evocation of colour, gesture, vibrations, dance,
and a whole series of related terms that aspire to displace the vocabulary
of subjectivity and expression in favour of the work’s eventhood, while still
perpetuating it. It is precisely at this point that we believe that fidelity to
Lyotard’s problems necessitates that we distance ourselves from what, no
doubt too quickly, could be called his particular “taste”.

Conclusion: Spacing Philosophy

From the point of view of those artistic practices that make up our present,
there seems to be a need to disengage from painting, or at least to think the
problem that Lyotard addresses in the name of painting in its full generality.

36 Jean-François Lyotard, “Karel Appel: Un geste de couleur / Karel Appel: A Gesture of

Colour“, in Writings on Contemporary Art and Artists, vol. 1 (Leuven: Leuven University
Press, 2009), p. 27.
37 Ibid., p. 159.
38 Ibid., p. 179.
39 Jean-François Lyotard, “Sam Francis: Leçon de Ténèbres / Sam Francis: Lessons of Dark-
ness“, in Writings on Contemporary Art and Artists, vol. 2 (Leuven: Leuven University Press,
2009), p. 11.
264 30 Years after Les Immatériaux

The questions of the sensible, touch, and presence indeed remain with is,
perhaps even in an intensified form, given the ubiquity of the digital and the
electronic: the constellation of concepts and intuitions, of the body and the
senses, and of the relation between work and truth, has by no means receded
from the horizon. That the promises or threats of violent transformations of
the life-world, of our bodily sensorium, of our experience of space and time,
continue to haunt us shows the importance of the task.

In many ways the proposals of Les Immatériaux retrieve the promise of inde-
terminacy of the early avant-garde of the twentieth century, as Lyotard’s
own statements clearly indicate. While we seem to be faced with an infinity
– and the experience of infinity as an abyss is a fundamental feature of Les
Immatériaux as well as of Lyotard’s writings on the sublime – of possible
modes of experience, this just as much produces anxieties and fantasies,
precisely the kind of “unease” that the exhibition wanted to provoke: a loss of
self, identity, and stability, a disconnection from the space-time of perception,
from matter, materials, and materiality, from the ground in all senses of the
world. The question is how to make such an unease productive, how to make
it into the matter of thought, in all senses of the term; how to allow for the
“foundation crisis” not to be resolved too quickly by appeals to either the syn-
thetic constructions of technoscience or a naïve, sensory given, but to make
the “unease” that it produces become a productive condition for an exper-
imental thinking and making.

The philosophical task proposed by Lyotard, if we see Les Immatériaux and

the conjectural Résistances together with the many essays and writings
that surround the first project and may be understood as pointing to the
second, is the question of how we can approach artworks that, while they at
least from conceptual art onward actively resist traditional modes of aes-
thetic enjoyment, nevertheless not just amount to a withdrawal of sense or
sensibility, but rather open up to a restructuring of the sensorium that allows
representation and its underside to enter into a new constellation that would
be in tune with the mutations of our present space-time. For this, the term
“postmodern” that Lyotard at one point suggested was perhaps a deceptive
one, since it tends to enclose us in the schemas of cause-effect and before-
after that his thought on the temporal knots of presence precisely took as its
task to undo. Something similar must of course be said of all claims to locate
the mutations of our present. For who would claim to know what the present
is, what its limits and possibilities are? Just like any other temporal category
the present is only given in anamnesis, through a rewriting and working-
through; Les Immatériaux was such an attempt, unfinished, incomplete, and
even contradictory, which is why it still demands to be not only thought, but
also continued.
From Immaterials to Resistance 265

In hindsight, one cannot avoid noting that most of the technological inventions
that appeared new and exciting in the 1980s have either become part of
everyday life, and in this sense lost their capacity for producing both unease
and thought, or, more alarmingly, turned into an increasingly hegemonic
system of information and surveillance. All of this could be taken as simply
an intensified version of what Adorno called the “administered world” – and
one in which the techniques of administration have grown infinitely more
subtle, insidious, and difficult to resist. In the world of global capital, where
the ubiquity of information ensures that all thought is transformed into bits
of exchangeable digitized units, identity and difference go together, and the
unifying and levelling power of what was once called the “culture industry”
have been replaced by a smooth production of differences, in taste, desires,
lifestyles, and affective dispositions. Variation, specification, and infinitesimal
penetration into the local is how capital works, and how it sustains its ordering
and regimenting function on a higher level.

It is against this development that one could pit the insistence on zones of
resistance to information: opacity, inertia, friction, physicality, all seem to
offer other possible avenues, and the thinking of the sensible that Lyotard
engages in his last writings. The sequel to Les Immatériaux could in this sense
have amounted to a counter-statement, or, as we have attempted to show,
an obverse side that was already present in the first exhibition, perhaps even
as the possibility of completing its trajectory in the opposite direction, from
language to body, from the immateriality of information to a kind of resistant
materiality that is inherent in information as such.

The first problem with such a countermove is that it inevitably – as we saw

in many instances in Lyotard’s own writings – runs the risk of reactivating
regressive ideas of art, drawing on what are in fact highly traditional ideas
of painting in particular, which since the advent of modernism in the mid-
nineteenth century for a host of historical reasons has been accredited with
the potential for providing us with an alternative to technological mediation.
While obviously not as such simply exhausted, the ideas of touch, gesture,
and the presence of colour, together with many other similar moves that
emphasize the irreplaceable Here and Now in body art, performance, etc.,
often function as integrated parts of the system they supposedly dislodge,
and in this they are akin to the movement of differentiation that is the other
side of systemic control, and may exert a compensatory function. Such
returns to the sensible can sometimes be conservative in an uninteresting
sense, in simply claiming that we need to regress to some earlier point in
time; others have a more complex agenda, for instance as in the theories
of “obsolescence”, where the strategic return to technologies and mediums
that are no longer considered up to date allow for a different take on his-
torical genealogies, but without making any claim that we could return to the
266 30 Years after Les Immatériaux

past without further ado. 40 Both of these returns however share a focus on
medium, no doubt as an echo of a formalist legacy that can be retrieved in
any number of ways, and yet remains caught in a theory of art and an aes-
thetic that begins by shunning away from the present. The convergence of
material “carriers”, or at least their almost infinite variability – which was one
of the basic claims of Les Immatériaux – poses problems that are unlikely to be
addressed in a relevant fashion by the reclaiming of obsolete technologies.
This is obviously not to deny the force, critical value or interest of any
particular form of artistic practice, only to note the complexity of the problem
of resistance, which, as already the classical formulations of information
theory show, is a necessary part of transmission and not something that
would form a radical outside. It would seem that Lyotard poses the problem,
but then, as he moves away from the at least seemingly celebratory stance of
Les Immatériaux, somehow ends up being trapped in his own examples, which
limit the force and scope of his philosophical claims.

Second, if we begin in a theory of resistance – which must also be thought as a

resistance in or to theory itself, if we follow Lyotard’s mediations on passibility,
the event, and other related concepts – that takes its cues from the physical
features of circuits and information systems, how can we move upwards to
the dimension of subjectivity and social practice? If a concept like resistance
is to be at the centre, the political dimension that seemed more or less absent
from Les Immatériaux must somehow be addressed, in a way that articulates
the physical with the social.

In terms of exhibitions as physical sites, an ulterior issue would be the pos-

sibility of pursuing the inverted trajectory in the form of an exhibition that
takes account of the transformations of space itself that have occurred since
Les Immatériaux. Could the move back from language to body, or on the level
of an exhibition, from information to space, at all be undertaken in the sense
that it would project an abstract level into a circumscribed location? If this is
still the case, it must in a produce its own space as a different kind of interstice
or interface in a way that takes into account the shifting relations between the
abstract and the concrete, the material and the immaterial. The sites of the
work and the exhibition have long since become if not wholly obsolete, then at
least far removed from the phenomenological coordinates that once upheld
the first discussions on site specificity, and have gone through many stages,
from the various attempts to inhabit the institutions in a reflexive and critical
fashion, to the complex overlays of places, times, and representation that
characterize much of contemporary art. 41 Thus, spiralling downwards we pass

40 This concept has been developed by Rosalind Krauss; see, for instance, “Reinventing the
Medium”, Critical Inquiry, vol. 25 (1999), and “’The Rock’: William Kentridge’s Drawings for
Projection”, October, no. 92 (2000).
41 For a succinct analysis of these three steps, the phenomenological site, the site of
institutional critique, and the ”discursive” site, see Miwon Kwon, ”One Place after
From Immaterials to Resistance 267

from what appears as spheres of pure ideality, a weightless realm of infor-

mation circulating frictionlessly, to inertia, body, visceral grounding, and
incarnation – but to which body, which ground, provided that we must keep
the crisis of foundations alive as the possibility of thought? As Lyotard himself
suggested, the grand claims about the end of Modernity and the possible
emergence of something entirely new, were in the end discernible only as
a question mark or as something missing, a certain absence: “I keep telling
myself, in fact, that the entirety of the exhibition could be thought of as a sign
that refers to a missing signified.”42

Another: Notes on Site Specificity”, October, Vol. 80 (Spring, 1997): 85–110.

42 Interview with Bernard Blistène, in Art And Philosophy (Milan: Flash Art Books, 1991).
This bibliography comprises the main secondary literature about Les
Immatériaux that was published prior to the present volume. For a list of the
catalogues and publications that accompanied the exhibition, and for a listing
of contemporary reviews, see Wunderlich 2008, p. 252–256.

Birnbaum, Daniel, and Sven-Olov Wallenstein: “Thinking Philosophy, Spatially: Jean-François

Lyotard’s Les Immatériaux and the Philosophy of the Exhibition”, in: Joseph Backstein et
al. (eds.): Thinking Worlds: The Moscow Conference on Philosophy, Politics, and Art. Berlin:
Sternberg Press, 2008.
Birnbaum, Daniel, and Sven-Olov Wallenstein: “Figuring the Matrix: Lyotard’s Les Immatériaux,
1985”, in: Thordis Arrhenius et al. (eds.): Place and Displacement: Exhibiting Architecture. Baden:
Lars Müller, 2014.
Blistène, Bernard: “A Conversation with Jean-François Lyotard” (orig. March 1985), in: Giancarlo
Politi, and Helena Kontova (eds.): Flash Art: Two Decades of History. Cambridge MA: MIT Press,
Boissier, Jean-Louis: “La question des nouveaux médias numériques”, in: Bernadette Dufrêne
(ed.): Centre Pompidou: 30 ans d’histoire. Paris: Éditions du Centre Pompidou, 2007, p. 374–391.
Carrier, Christian (ed.): Les Immatériaux (au Centre Georges Pompidou en 1985): Étude de l’évèn-
ement exposition et de son public. Paris: Expo-Média, 1986.
Crowther, Paul: “Sublimity and Postmodern Culture. Lyotard’s Les Immatériaux”, in: Critical Aes-
thetics and Postmodernism. London: Oxford University Press, 1996, p. 162–175.
Déotte, Jean-Louis: “Les Immatériaux de Lyotard (1985): un programme figural”, in: Appareil, No.
10, special issue: “Lyotard et la surface d’inscription numérique”, 2012.
Déotte, Jean-Louis: “Le paradoxe des Immatériaux: entre répulsion et fascination”, in: Cités
1/2011 (n° 45) , p. 59–67.
Eizykman, Claudine, and Guy Fihman: “Aperçus sur la pratique postmoderne de J-FL”, in:
Françoise Coblence and Michel Enaudeau (eds.): Lyotard et les arts. Paris: Klincksieck, 2014, p.
229–240 (esp. p. 236–240).
Gallo, Francesca: Les Immatériaux: Un Percorso di Jean-François Lyotard nell’arte contemporanea.
Rome: Aracne, 2008.
Gallo, Francesca: “Ce n’est pas une exposition, mais une œuvre d’art. L’exemple des
Immatériaux de Jean-François Lyotard”, in: Appareil, No. 10, special issue “Lyotard et la surface
d’inscription numérique”, 2012.
Gere, Charlie: Art, Time and Technology (chapter 8: “1985: Jean-Franois Lyotard and the
Immaterial”). Oxford: Berg, 2006.
Glicenstein, Jérôme: “Les Immatériaux”, in: Françoise Coblence and Michel Enaudeau (eds.):
Lyotard et les arts. Paris: Klincksieck, 2014, p. 102–114.
Heinich, Nathalie: “Les Immatériaux Revisited: Innovation in Innovations”, Tate Papers 12,
London: Tate, 2009.
Hudek, Antony: “From Over- to Sub-Exposure: The Anamnesis of Les Immatériaux”, Tate Papers
12, London: Tate, 2009 (edited version reprinted in this volume).
Pierce, Gillian Borland: Scapeland: Writing the Landscape from Diderot’s Salons to the Postmodern
Museum. Amsterdam, New York City, NY: Rodopi, 2012.
Rajchman, John: “Les Immatériaux or How to Construct the History of Exhibitions”, Tate Papers 12,
London: Tate, 2009.
Theophilakis, Elie (ed.): Modernes, et après? “Les Immatériaux”. Paris: Editions Autrement, 1985.
Tron, Colette: “Des Immatériaux à l’hypermatériel”, in: Réel-Virtuel, No. 1, special issue “Textures
du numérique”, February 2010.
Wunderlich, Antonia: Der Philosoph im Museum: Die Ausstellung Les Immatériaux von Jean-François
Lyotard. Bielefeld: transcript, 2008.
Image Credits

[Figure 1] Communication diagram (Source: Petit Journal, 28 March–15 July 1985, Paris, p.2.
Centre Pompidou, MNAM, Bibliothèque Kandinsky).
[Figure 2] François Chatelet with the Olivetti computer used for the Épreuves d’écriture writing
experiment (Source: Centre Pompidou, MNAM, Bibliotèque Kandinsky).
[Figure 3] Exhibition visitor, site Arôme simulé (Source: Centre Pompidou, MNAM, Bib-
liothèque Kandinsky, photograph by Jean-Claude Planchet).
[Figure 4] Exhibition view, site Auto-engendrement (Source: Centre Pompidou, MNAM, Bib-
liotèque Kandinsky).
[Figure 5] Philippe Délis: Drawing of audience behind gauze fabric, [no date] (Source: Centre
Pompidou, MNAM, Bibliothèque Kandinsky)
[Figure 6] Exhibition view, site Labyrinthe du langage (Source: Centre Pompidou, MNAM, Bib-
liothèque Kandinsky, photograph by Jean-Claude Planchet).
[Figure 7] Inventaire, site Romans à faire, recto (Source: Centre Pompidou, MNAM, Bib-
liothèque Kandinsky).
[Figure 8] Exhibition visitor, site Labyrinthe du langage (Source: Centre Pompidou, MNAM, Bib-
liothèque Kandinsky, photograph by Jean-Claude Planchet).
[Figure 9] Jean-Louis Boissier: Le Bus, 1985, installation view, Les Immatériaux, site Visites
simulées (Source: Jean-Louis Boissier).
[Figure 10] Inventaire, site Visites simulées, recto (Source: Centre Pompidou, MNAM, Bib-
liothèque Kandinsky, photographs by Jean-Louis Boissier).
[Figure 11] Ruth Francken: Jean-Paul Sartre, 1979. Inventaire, site Tous les auteurs, recto (Source:
Centre Pompidou, MNAM, Bibliothèque Kandinsky).
[Figure 12] Exhibition view, site L’Ange (site design by Martine Moinot): Maria Klonaris and
Katerina Thomadaki, Orlando-Hermaphrodite II (Source: Klonaris/Thomadaki).
[Figure 13] Maria Klonaris and Katerina Thomadaki: Orlando-Hermaphrodite II (Source:
[Figure 14] Annegret Soltau, Schwanger, 1978-80, site Trois mères (Source: Annegret Soltau, VG
Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2015).
[Figure 15] Lynn Hershman: DiNA, 2004 (Source: Lynn Hershman).
[Figure 16] Jean-François Lyotard during the opening of Les Immatériaux, 26 March 1985 (from
left to right: Claude Pompidou, Thierry Chaput, Jean-François Lyotard, Jack Lang)
(Source: Centre Pompidou, MNAM, Bibliothèque Kandinsky, photograph by Jean-
Claude Planchet).
[Figure 17] Rolf Gehlhaar, Son = Espace, 1983-85, installation view, site Musicien malgré lui
(Source: R. Gehlhaar).
[Figure 18] Carlo Zanni, The Fifth Day, 2009 (still of the web work) (Source: C. Zanni).
[Figure 19] Catherine Ikam, installation sketch, site Temps différé (detail from Inventaire, site
Temps différé, verso) (Source: Centre Pompidou, MNAM, Bibliothèque Kandinsky).
Jean-Louis Boissier is an artist and Emeritus Professor of Art and Aesthetics
at Paris 8 University. His research focuses on the aesthetics and the epis-
temology of the digital related to contemporary art. He is the author of many
installations involving interactivity and exhibition curator. His main papers
have been published in the book La Relation comme forme (Geneva: Mamco,
2009, 2nd edition).

Daniel Birnbaum is director of Moderna Museet, Stockholm, since 2010. From

2000–2010, he was director of the Städelschule Fine Arts Academy in Frankfurt
and director of its Kunsthalle Portikus. He is co-founder (with Isabelle Graw) of
the Institut für Kunstkritik. He is a contributing editor for Artforum in New York
and has curated a number of large exhibitions, including a section of the 2003
Venice Biennale. He was Artistic Director of the 53rd Venice Biennale in 2009.

Andreas Broeckmann is an art historian and curator. He works at the Centre

for Digital Cultures at Leuphana Universität Lüneburg and is the Director of
the Leuphana Arts Program. He has curated exhibitions and festivals in major
European venues. Broeckmann lectures internationally about the history of
modern art, media theory, machine aesthetics, and digital culture. His pub-
lications include Place Studies in Art, Media, Science and Technology. Historical
Investigations on the Sites and the Migration of Knowledge. (ed. with Gunalan
Nadarajan, Weimar: VDG, 2009). He is currently working on a study about
20th-century machine art.

Thierry Dufrêne is an art historian and Professor of Contemporary Art His-

tory at the University of Paris Ouest Nanterre La Défense, where he directs
the Research Centre “Art History Representations” (MDT). He is the Scientific
Secretary of the International Committee of Art History (CIHA), a member of
the International Association of Art Critics (AICA) and of the editorial board of
the journal Diogène. A recognized specialist in the work of Alberto Giacometti,
he is an historian of twentieth- through twenty-first-century sculpture. The
subjects of his texts include Alain Kirili, Piotr Kowalski, Berto Lardera, Ivan
Messac and Joel Shapiro.

Francesca Gallo graduated and post-graduated in Contemporary Art History,

she teaches at Sapienza University. She studied the Grand Tour, the inter-
national context of Italian art and art critique of late XIXth century, as well as
the techniques and the methods of art in the XXth century. She devoted her
Ph.D. to the exhibition Les Immatériaux, and is currently focusing on artis-
tic research from the Sixties to the present day, in the context of the critical
debate and of the art system, and on new media art and performance art.

Charlie Gere is Professor of Media Theory and History at the Lancaster

Institute for Contemporary Arts, Lancaster University. He is the author
274 30 Years after Les Immatériaux

of numerous books on art and digital culture, among them Digital Culture
(2002), Art, Time and Technology (2006), and co-editor of White Heat Cold
Technology (2009), as well as of many papers on questions of technology,
media and art. In 2007 he co-curated Feedback, a major exhibition of new
media art at Laboral in Northern Spain, and was co-curator of FutureEverybody,
the 2012 FutureEverything exhibition, in Manchester.

Antony Hudek is the director of Objectif Exhibitions, Antwerp, and co-

founding director of Occasional Papers, a non-profit art and design publisher.
In the past he was curator and deputy director of Raven Row in London,
research curator at Tate Liverpool and senior lecturer at Liverpool John
Moores University, where he founded and convened the Exhibition Research
Centre. He is the co-translator with Mary Lydon of Jean-François Lyotard’s Dis-
cours, figure (University of Minnesota Press, 2010) and the editor of The Object,
an anthology of texts published by Whitechapel Gallery in London (2014).

Yuk Hui studied computer engineering, cultural theory and philosophy at the
University of Hong Kong and Goldsmiths College in London. He is postdoctoral
researcher at the Centre for Digital Cultures, Leuphana University of
Lüneburg, where he also teaches. He was postdoctoral researcher at the
Institute for Research and Innovation of Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris.
Hui publishes internationally in periodicals such as Metaphilosophy, Cahiers
Simondon, Zeitschrift für Medienwissenschaft, his monograph On the Existence of
Digital Objects, will appear with University of Minnesota Press in early 2016.

Jean-François Lyotard (1924–1998) was one of the most important

philosophers of the 20th century. From 1970–1987 he was professor of
philosophy at Paris 8 University. He is author of more than 23 books, among
them Discours, figure (1971), Economie libidinale (1974), The Postmodern Con-
dition (1979), The Differend (1983), Heidegger and the Jews (1988), Inhuman (1988),
Lessons on the Analytic of the Sublime (1991). His posthumous publications
include La Confession d’Augustin (1998), Misère de la philosophie (2000), Pourquoi
philosopher? (2012). He was the curator (with Thierry Chaput) of the exhibition
Les Immatériaux at the Centre Pompidou in Paris in 1985.

Robin Mackay is a philosopher, translator, associate lecturer at Goldsmiths

University of London, and director of UK arts organization Urbanomic.
In addition to directing Urbanomic’s publishing operation and curatorial
activities, Mackay is editor of Collapse: Journal of Philosophical Research and
Development. He has also translated numerous works of French philosophy.
Mackay writes and speaks regularly on art and philosophy and has worked
with several contemporary artists such as John Gerrard, Pamela Rosenkranz
and Florian Hecker developing cross-disciplinary projects.

Anne Elisabeth Sejten is Professor of Aesthetical Culture at Roskilde Uni-

versity, Denmark. Author of a.o. the book Diderot ou le défi esthétique (Vrin,
Authors 275

2000), editor of Danish anthologies and contributor to Scandinavian and

international anthologies and periodicals on literature, art and aesthetics,
especially about French Enlightenment, contemporary French philosophy and,
more recently, the essayistic work of Paul Valéry.

Bernard Stiegler is director of the Institute for Research and Innovation at the
Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris. Before this he was program director at the
International College of Philosophy, Deputy Director General of the Institut
National de l’Audiovisuel, then Director General at the Institut de Recherche
et Coordination Acoustique/Musique (IRCAM). He has published many books,
among them three volumes of La technique et le temps, two volumes of De la
misère symbolique; his recent publications includes Pharmacologie du Front
National (Flammarion, 2013) and La Societé automatique (Fayard, 2015).

Sven-Olov Wallenstein is Professor of Philosophy at Södertörn University,

Stockholm, and editor-in-chief of Site. He is translator of philosophical works
from German and French into Swedish, as well as author of numerous books
on philosophy, contemporary art, and architecture. Recent publications
include Edmund Husserl (ed. 2011), Translating Hegel: The Phenomenology of Spirit
and Modern Philosophy (ed. with Brian Manning Delaney, 2012), Foucault, Biopol-
itics, and Governmentality (ed. with Jakob Nilsson, 2013), and Heidegger, språket
och poesin (ed. with Ola Nilsson, 2013). Forthcoming is a book on Architecture
and Theory.
Yuk Hui
Andreas Broeckmann (eds.)
30 Years after Les Immatériaux: Art, Science, and Theory

In 1985, the French philosopher Jean-François Lyotard

curated a groundbreaking exhibition called Les Immatériaux
at the Centre Pompidou in Paris. The exhibition showed
how telecommunication technologies were beginning to
impact every aspect of life. At the same time, it was a
material demonstration of what Lyotard called the post-
modern condition.

This book features a previously unpublished report by

Jean-François Lyotard on the conception of Les Immatériaux
and its relation to postmodernity. Reviewing the historical
significance of the exhibition, his text is accompanied by
twelve contemporary meditations. The philosophers, art
historians, and artists analyse this important moment in
the history of media and theory, and reflect on the new
material conditions brought about by digital technologies
in the last 30 years.

Texts by Daniel Birnbaum, Jean-Louis Boissier, Andreas Broeckmann, Thierry

Dufrêne, Francesca Gallo, Charlie Gere, Antony Hudek, Yuk Hui, Jean-François
Lyotard, Robin Mackay, Anne Elisabeth Sejten, Bernard Stiegler, and Sven-Olov

ISBN 978-3-95796-030-6